"The lights are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime". —Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, on the eve of the war.
Once upon a time, in 1918, a war between two alliances - the French-led 'Entente Cordiale' and the German-led 'Central Powers'note Terms a lot of academic articles and books have been using lately, and which we kindly ask you to use when editing this page (and when geeking out with fellow history-buffs) since it helps avoid confusion with World War Two. Plus, the names are kinda cool. - and the richest and most powerful empires and nation-states on earth ended. It was the biggest, bloodiest, most expensive, most disruptive, most damaging and most traumatising war the world had ever seen. It left millions dead, maimed, shell-shocked, dispossessed, impoverished, starving and bitter. Victory brought relief more than it did elation or sorrow, and in the aftermath the victorious powers resolved to form a better world from the ashes of the old - albeit in more or less exactly the same image as that of the old, save the addition of more and worse economic and ethnic problems. This was a war that crushed attitudes, destroyed countless lives, brought down four great(-ish) empires and in its conclusion sowed the seeds of further conflict and suffering. The extent to which it did all these things made the First World War a war the likes of which the world had never seen... but the world was yet to see the last of this magnitude of conflict.
Formerly known as "The Great War", or as "The War to End All Wars" or even "The World War" untilthe sequelbroke out. Ironically, the Napoleonic Wars had previously been known as The Great War until this one broke out. This was quite possibly the most unpopular widespread conflict in the history of civilization in hindsight, and even at the time it faced serious support issues. It perhaps comes a close second in the Anglosphere for The Vietnam War, and even manages to beat Algeria in the Francosphere. In hindsight, the final resolution of the war has been come to be dubbed "the peace to end all peaces."
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1914 - in July Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbianote as means of ending Serbian support for Austro-Hungarian revolutionaries, Russia declares war on Austria-Hungarynote to check Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans and hopefully make gains there for herself, on 26 July Russia begins secret mobilisation of her reserve-troopsnote Mobilisation (of reserve-troops) is important, and basically the same thing as declaring war because reserve-troops make up so much of the troop totals (between a third to half) of each of the Great Powers involved. Although Russian mobilisation is closely modeled on and just as if not more efficient than French mobilisation (13 days, give or take a day), Russia is a much bigger country than France and so it takes a few days on top of that to move the last of those shiny new units to wherever you want them. German mobilisation is markedly slower, needing 17 days, and even with all its reserves the German army is only half the size of the Russian - without her reserves, the German army is only 1/3 the size. That doesn't even begin to cover the way that France has an army only a little bit smaller than Germany's (4/5 the size including reserves), mobilizes quicker than Germany can, and will support Russia (by attacking Germany) in any war between the two . Italy refuses to come to Austria-Hungary's aid note officially because Austria-Hungary had not consulted them before declaring war, but actually because they are sure Britain will support France in any Franco-German war and a British blockade will devastate the (sea-)trade-dependent Italian economy. Italy also wants Austro-Hungarian territories that contain Italian minorities, but the latter won't give them up even to preserve their alliance. . Germany declares war on Russia in support of Austria-Hungary because Kaiser Wilhelm had promised to support Austria-Hungary no matter what. On 1 August France mobilises her reserves and in response, Germany declares war upon France and Belgium and Luxembourg. Britain declares war upon Germanynote as a way to submerge internal dissent (chiefly Irish devolution, safe working conditions and livable pay, and womens' rights), decrease British reliance on trade with Germany, and cripple the German economy with a blockade, British Commonwealth follows suit. Russia launches East Prussian offensive with 400k, France executes Plan XVII with c.600k - French offensive into Germany, Luxembourg, and southern Belgium to pre-empt Germany's Aufmarsch Inote Aufmarsch I, Deployment Plan I, calls for deployment of c. 80% of German army against France and c.15% (c.200k) against Russia. Plan is flexible, so deployed troops can be used for offensive or counter-offensive. Under Chief-of-Staff Schlieffen (retired 1905) counter-offensive was preferred as it combined best features of defense (greater tactical effectiveness due to superior intelligence, cover, and machine-guns) and offense (ability to mass superior forces against inferior enemy ones and thereby defeat them with minimal losses). But his successor Chief of Staff Moltke advocated offensive instead on grounds that the tactical efficiency of the defense was only marginal and (thus) always being the attacker was crucial to victory in any battle (as 'proved', inverted commas, in Russo-Japanese War). Either way, 'Decisive Battle' only possible in west - maximum of 40% of Army can be deployed and kept supplied in East, so victory there would be neither as tactically nor strategically decisive (German force would be too small and Russian ability to replace losses very good). But decisive blow against French could even make subsequent invasion of France possible - defeat of France would end French raiding of German shipping and leave Germany to face two-plus year war with Russia, or maybe white peace . Aufmarsch I entails invasion of (northern) Belgium and Luxembourg with c.700k troops to seek 'decisive battle' with French Army. French armies, Russian armies, BEF of 50k defeatednote German force of 200k moving north-west through southern Belgium meets French force of 200k attacking north-east. French force attacks during heavy downpours without scouting out the German positions or waiting for their artillery to catch up - takes heavy losses. German force disobeys orders to continue moving north-west and instead pursues fleeing French forces south-west. In Prussia dedicated German defence force of 200k makes use of railways (as per meticulous pre-war planning and training) to mass against Russian Army of 200k advancing north from Russian Poland and attack it at Tannenburg - Russian force takes heavy losses. German force then uses rail network to re-group and meet up with 20k troops transferred from France, mass, and launch counter-offensive against second Russian force of 200k advancing west from Lithuania at Masurian Lakes - German force too weak and exhausted to pursue them into Lithuania proper, where freshly-mobilised Russian Reserve Army of c.200k is on defensive. Note that under Schlieffen, plan had been to transfer 100k troops from France to enable proper pursuit and thus greater destruction of second Russian force - but Moltke prioritised second, follow-on offensive in France instead . German army opportunistically hounds southward retreat of French forces, pursuit grinds to halt east of Paris on river Marne note This second offensive most definitely premature, unwise - Belgian rail lines still not repaired at time, meaning the German right-wing armies are over 120km from the nearest working railhead (meaning week-long round trips for supplies). The logistics-horses for these armies also have no food (meaning weakness as well as exhaustion, which contributes to crippling rates of sickness among the poor creatures). German logistics-horses in general exhausted and overworked and need rest+treatment to check exponentially increasing death-rate. German army not as well-equipped with non-rail transport as French Army, assumption of pre-war planning being that Germany would be on the defensive in at least the initial stage of a war with France and Russia. Conversely, French Army well-equipped with non-rail transport due to provision of pre-war planning (Plan XVII) for invasion of Belgian and German territory in support of Russia . Austro-Hungarian mobilisation botched - fewer than 100k assigned to Serbian offensive (Serbian Army 60k) and 800k-man offensive against Russia delayed so much that Russia manages to both invade Germany and execute successful defense with force of c. 1.5 million. Ottoman Empire brought into war by opportunistic False Flag Operation orchestrated by Germanynote Two German commerce-raider warships in the Mediterranean make a break for The Dardanelles, chased by a British squadron. They ask for refuge in Ottoman waters, but are refused - however, Ottomans agree to buy both warships. However, Ottomans lack specialised crew for them so pre-existing crews are allowed to remain on them while they train Ottoman Navy personnel in use of the ships. Then, when both ships have been allowed into the Black Sea and are officially under the Ottoman flag, the crews mutiny and sail off to shell Russian ports. Russia wants the greater influence over the Balkans that would come with the destruction of The Ottoman Empire and notes that Britain will be able to help out by attacking The Ottomans directly (and they might even end up doing most of the work), so This Means War!! . Royal Navy imposes 'distant blockade' of German sea-trade between Scotland and Norway, but German-Scandinavian trade continuesnote Cadbury revenues actually increase thanks to sales to Germany via Norway. Chaos on stock market and in general European economy as half continent stops trading with itself. German surface-raiders - many disguised as fast merchant shipsnote Merchant ships are (much) faster than (heavily-armoured, heavily-armed, and slow) 'battle-ships' and have much greater range than torpedo-boats (tiny boats everyone uses for riverine and coastal defense) and 'torpedo-boat-destroyers' (small ships with light, rapid-fire armament designed to destroy the unarmoured torpedo-boats in defense of battleships). Emptying the holds of a merchant ship and giving it some guns is child's play, and something pretty much everyone had thought of. Britain built a very large 'cruiser' (lightly-armoured, fast, and moderately-well-armed warships) force to hunt down other cruisers and these armed merchant ships. Britain also built a handful of 'battlecruisers' (ships with the armament of battleships and the armour and speed of cruisers) to serve as flagships for hunter-killer squadrons of British cruisers (when hunting other cruisers). This two-decade-old, very large cruiser-battlecruiser force was tailor-made to counter the French navy (which fielded an ominously large force of extra-fast merchant-ship-hunting cruisers) - wreak minor havoc among Entente shipping.
1915 - need for greater mobilization of economic resources recognized by all combatants as forces get hamstrung by extremely weak logistics and critical lack of ammunition, particularly for artillery. All attempts at offensive operations on Franco-German front fail. Germany co-ordinates with Austria to knock Russia out of war, but fails - poorer infrastructure of Russia and inferiority in horses means logistical advantage lies with Russian army, this offsetting Germans' greater combat-efficiency and poor state of Russian planning and communications. Russian forces fall back in good order from Poland, Russian resolve hardening with ground lost. Losses of artillery assets in particular by Russian forces causes Russian government to adopt dangerously over-extensive program of mobilization exacerbated by her total economic isolation as result of loss of virtually all international trade. Russian counter-offensive repels Ottomans' Georgian offensive with such heavy losses that the 'back' of Ottoman army believed broken - Franco-Commonwealth force organised by head of Britain's Royal Navy (Winston Churchill) launches amphibious offensive to force Dardanelles and re-open sea trade in April. Germans assist Ottoman defense, Entente forces withdraw in January 1916. Last of German surface raiders destroyed, but sporadic submarine (u-boot) attacks continue. German colonies occupied, but isolated resistance continues. Conscription used to build Commonwealth forces up to levels where they can relieve pressure on Franco-Russian manpower reserves. British blockade now 100% - Scandinavian ports mined and all Scandinavian shipping intercepted. Diplomatic coup for Entente as Italy is persuaded to join them with promises of large strips of Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman territory; Italy declares war on Austria-Hungary on 24/5/1915 but alpine terrain of the border is so bad and so narrow that Italian offensive operations impossible.
1916 - Germany recognises need to 'break' France before Russia and The Commonwealth can fully mobilise their resources, as Germany has reached limits of own manpower+industrial mobilisation and Austria-Hungarian society & government visibly disintegrating under strain of war. Strategy of simply exhausting France's manpower reserves and then using greater German combat-efficiency to bludgeon way through French lines decided upon, employed in battle at Verdun starting 21/2/1916 - sector of front where French rail-supply poor, and German good. Not as effective as hoped - French Army has world's largest pool of motor-transport, not as reliant on rail-supply as expected - but situation still precarious until offensive by Russian Army's Southern Front under Brusilov (4/6/1916-20/9/1916) and Commonwealth offensive at Somme (1/7/1916-18/11/1916) forces Germans to abort all operations at Verdun by 18/12/1916. 'Brusilov' offensive effectively exhausts Austro-Hungarian reserves for relatively little cost to Russian Army, but Russian Army logistics (despite greater resources) badly-managed and offensive cannot be sustained - success in that German reserves needed to stabilise front. Brusilov's Front also neglected in favour of Northern Front, which was expected to do the 'real' work of distracting German Army from Somme... but Northern Front offensive total failure due to same (and worse) problems as Commonwealth Somme Offensive, German reserves not needed to stabilise front. Somme offensive mixed success, also draws off some German reserves, but fails due to inadequate co-ordination of artillery and infantry and complete neglect of logistics. German counter-offensive stabilises front opposite Brusilov and Germany assumes command over all Austro-Hungarian forces in the east. German Fleet'snote The brief pre-war Anglo-German arms race (ended 1913) concerned an abortive German attempt to build up a 'battleship' fleet that could challenge Britain's own, which ended when Kaiser Wilhelm realised that Britain would do whatever it took to stop that from happening - in 1914 the British still had more than twice as many battleships and were also building twice as many as Germany was. attempt to break blockade and/or destroy British Fleet in decisive battle fails - 31/5 to 1/6/1916 Battle Of Jutland indecisive, blockade continues. Russian war-production peaks, but results in urban famine in Moscow and Saint Petersburg as lack of consumer goods in economy means farmers are no longer selling their grain - Austria-Hungary beginning to suffer same problem.
1917 - In March, Urban famine in St Petersburg and Moscow causes coup against Tsar, self-governing communes rise up in Russian urban centres and middle class+elite establish unelected 'Provisional Government' - uneasy alliance between two, but both agree to mutually piss off when they elect a government by universal vote at a later date. Germany decides to use submarine fleet against 'all' shipping, USA uses this as casus belli and joins Entente. Commonwealth forces use their improved artillery-infantry cooperation to pioneer a new 'successive breakthrough' operational/campaign strategy note Multiple tactical breakthroughs/victorious battles in the same sector, each less than a week apart, along a line of advance completely 'covered' by artillery. Despite effective co-ordination of infantry and artillery, fails due to complete neglect of engineering and logistics - massive repair works required to render infrastructure of the captured territory useful... and the just-captured territory has to be used to capture more territory, not to mention the ammunition and food and reinforcement requirements of the infantry and artillery moving up into it. They do learn from this, however, and listen to the engineers' demands that they effectively double the number of engineers allocated to future offensive operations/campaigns that fails due to insufficient engineering+logistics. French Army and society also tires of demoralising 'attrition warfare' strategy and insists upon alternative - experimental 'breakthrough strategy' championed by junior commander Nivelle, which they are promised will end war quickly. Its dismal failure with even worse losses to no effectnote It didn't help that the 'new' strategy was basically an attempt to apply successful battlefield tactics to the operational/campaign level by a commander with little grasp of the differences between the two - particularly in the way artillery, engineering, and logistics work rather differently is deeply demoralising, causes c.45% of French Army to mutiny - units collectively refuse to do anything but hold their current positions and defend themselves until a system of 'leave' is organised, they are given safe and decent rations, and Army Command 'gets its £&$@^&£*! act together'. Italian Army of 400k suffers devastating tactical defeat by Central Powers army of 350k at Caporetto - Commonwealth offensives aborted as forces rushed to help stabilise Italian front, defeat triggers re-structuring of Italian Army at tactical/battlefield level. Rumania brought into war on Entente side - but army easily defeated and country quickly occupied, its petroleum and grain resources aid the Central Powers' war effort. After failure of offensive against German-led forces by unreformed Russian Army, Russian Army also mutinies - not 100% clear what troops want, but general consensus is they want the elections now, not later. In November elections held and won by rural-based Social-Democratic Party with 60% of vote, but urban Russian Communist Party arrests all delegates when they attempt to meet and declares that The Russian Empire has been dissolved,orders all Russian troops to disperse and return home. The German-Habsburg armies take virtually no losses when they sweep them aside and occupy The Baltic States, Belorussia, and Ukraine - thereby securing enough grain to avert famine for another year.
1918 - Russian Communist Party scrambles to form the 'Red Army' - regular military force with ultra-modern structure built using core of old General Staff and cream of officer corps. But Red Army too small and too weak to prevent Alies from advancing further, Communist Party negotiates with Germany and cedes all occupied territory to Germany in 5/3/1918 Treaty Of Brest Litovsk; the Russian front of WWI segues seamlessly into the Russian Civil War. 200k German and Habsburg troops remain to occupy territory, remaining 500k transferred to Western Front. c. 1.5 million German troops used in series of attacks on Entente lines starting 21/3/1918 - heavy German losses to no effect, total failure by 5/4/1918 though sporadic attacks continue for further two months. Michael Offensive only ever a campaign/operation in name only, demonstrates ultimate failure of German army to adapt to modern warfarenote Any real intentions for the offensive have only been discerned after the fact - there was a nominal plan, but none of the details were fleshed out. For what it's worth the plan seems to have been for a solid, direct thrust to sea - thereby cutting off Entente forces in the north from their supply lines in the south, which would allow the Germans to advance on Paris with the assumption that it would break the back of the Entente on the Western Front. Assuming this, more operations/campaigns could be initiated (once all the rail-lines and roads had been repaired sufficient stockpiles of food and ammo had been built up) to mop up remaining Ententeforces and secure France, with the assumption that this would make them sue for peace and effectively win the war for the Central Powers. Urban famine in Austria-Hungary and Germany - anti-war demonstrations appear, increase despite repression. In August, Entente launches "Hundred Days' Offensive". Series of virtually non-stop attacks by partially-reformed Entente forces push Germans back - 'death of a thousand cuts' as German forces constantly eroded by Entente tactical/battlefield superiority, cumulative effect devastating. Still no strategic breakthroughs, no operational encirclements - but Entente winning anyway. Bulgaria sues for peace with Entente in late September; Ottoman Empire surrenders on 30 October when Commonwealth forces reach modern-day Turkey, having routed last remaining Ottoman resistance. Austro-Hungarian offensive at Venice thrown into disarray by counterattack, army then 'broken' by Italian offensive including 24/10/1918-3/11/1918 battle of Vittorio Veneto - only 40k Habsburg dead, but 400k troops flee and later surrender to Italian forces (of similar size). Austria-Hungary declares cease-fire on 4/11/1918. On 11/11/1918 Germany does same - effective at 11:00 Central European Time (CET). Fighting on Western Front ceases. Entente victorious, but have only a few thousand troops in Central and Eastern Europe - not one single functional government between Rhine and Don rivers. Shape of the peace - and Europe itself - to come unclear, but will formally be decided in conference at Versailles next year...
The Western Front
The war in Anglophone popular culture consists of precisely two settings:
British Tommies live in the hellish trenches, where it's always raining and the muddy ground is covered in craters. There's always an artillery bombardment going on. Mud, barbed wire, and rotting human flesh is everywhere. Periodically, the out-of-touch, over-optimistic Upper-Class Twit generals decide to mount another attack and the poor Tommies go "over the top" into a hail of enemy machine-gun fire and everyone gets killed (often staged similarly to a Bolivian Army Ending except there's no doubt about the tragic outcome really). Usually, one of the working-class Tommies will admit not to know why the war even started, to incredulity on the part of the officers — until they try and explain, when it all sounds simply too lame to be true.
The Tommies are a mixture of salt-of-the-earth working-class rankers (enlisted men) and NCOs and upper-class officers. Officers are either absurdly naive Upper-Class Twit types, straight from the playing-fields of Eton, looking forward to Giving the Hun a Damn Good Licking, or decent, intellectual types who write poetry and ruminate on the meaning of sacrifice and duty, but provide a brave face for the men.
Only the darkest of comedies are set here, although there's plenty of scope for tragedy. A very few films substitute American "Doughboys" for the Tommies, though actually the Americans avoided trench warfare as a matter of policy (they already saw how bloody it was during their own Civil War), and were fortunate to arrive en masse just as things had started moving again.
Knights of the Sky:
The war on the ground is a depressing morass of mud, barbed wire and certain death — but chivalry and bravery still count for something in the air. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines take to the skies in flimsy biplanes to duel with the Germans. Most of these pilots are chivalrous, except for that one evil bastard in the black plane and that Britisher who repeatedly guns down his already-defeated enemy on the ground. Their German counterpart is Bruno Stachel, a ruthless functioning alcoholic with equally little patience for chivalrous dueling, who takes to the skies in The Blue Max.
The British fliers are all officers, and usually fit into one of the two Trench Warfare officer types above, though there's more room for a Biggles-style dashing hero here. Indeed, Biggles first appeared as a Royal Flying Corps pilot in France.
While both of these settings have a lot of truth behind them, they don't tell the whole story. In particular, watching any of the small number of American and British World War One movies out there could convince you that it was a solely Anglo-German affair, with the Americans turning up to lend a hand later on. In particular, many writers (and viewers/readers) in Anglospheric world confuse 1914 with 1940 and forget that the French kept fighting throughout, because the Western Front was situated in the northernmost regions of France from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier. French soldiers outnumbered the British substantially on the Western Front (70,000 British soldiers were initially mobilized in 1914, they were 800,000 in France) and even taught inexperienced American soldiers how to fight in the trenches and equipped them. By the end of the war and despite the heaviest death toll on the Western Front, the French army had become the most powerful army in the world, but it didn't last a decade as soon as pacifism became a major value in French society. In fact, more French people died during this war than during its sequel (three times more), and the vast majority of them were soldiers.
Many works glamorize the first fighter pilots as the "Knights of the Sky", and there is some truth to this, but they also had such a high casualty rate that their airplanes were commonly nicknamed "flying coffins" - the average life expectancy of new pilots was about one week. They had none of the safety systems or redundancies of later warplanes, and were very fragile. A handful of veteran pilots on each side gained enough experience to score dozens of kills, but these were exceptional. Ironically, many infantrymen stuck in the trenches still envied the pilots, because even though they had a high casualty rate, they at least got to sleep in a clean bed at night in their hangar, not stuck in the hellish mud of the trenches.
Even after the smarter generals — and there were several — realised they didn't have the technology to break through the other side's defences, the politicians insisted on more futile charges. Eventually, the tank was invented, and new strategies devised. The Entente battle plans for 1919 were apparently very close to blitzkrieg, but the war ended first. The Entente General Staffs then were wracked by infighting over claiming credit for which service arm actually won the war — largely ignoring the fact that all of them working together is what in fact decided the conflict — and as a result dropped much of what they'd learned about combined arms warfare, aircraft, and tanks down the back of the filing cabinet... not their best moment.
As the name suggests, it was a World War — fighting on the Eastern Front between Germany/Austria and Russia/Serbia was far more fluid than in the west, with great swathes of land gained and lost with every offensive and cavalry galloping freely around. The Austro-Hungarians and Italians — with some (respectively) German and Entente support — slugged it out over the Alpine passes in some of the worst fighting of the war in the history of warfare, and fought no fewer than eleven battles over the same river (the Soča/Isonzo) before the Austro-Hungarians finally broke through only to be stopped on the Piave river and forced back to the old battlelines on one MORE battle until the Austro-Hungarian lines were finally broken and Vienna was forced to come to terms. When certain mountain fortresses were recognized as invincible (a realization that usually took the lives of thousands), whole mountains were mined from the inside and blown skywards together with their strongholds and garrisons. With fighting in Africa, naval engagements off the Falklands and Chile, commerce raiding in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, an Anglo-Japanese (under Japanese command) siege and seizure of Germany's concessions in China and the Pacific, an Australian attack on Germany's colonies in New Guinea, a battle on the Mexico-Arizona border as well as sabotage in North America, the war took place on all continents except Antarctica and Australia — and the ANZACs (Aussies and Kiwis) showed up with the Canadians as part of The British Empire.
The short version of just what started the war is this: a centuries-long buildup of interlocking treaties (many of which required that Nation A automatically join in defense of Nation B, which required that Nation C join in, etc), betrayals, and long-simmering ethnic and national feuds (Germans and French hated one another, Austrians and Serbs hated one another, and on and on) put Europe in a position where the slightest spark would set off a global conflict that had become more or less inevitable.note Though at least one person has noted that the war might not have been as inevitable had everyone not thought it was inevitable — in other words, that The War Is Coming anyway, so "we" might as well get The First Blow in. The long story involves a lot more Realpolitik, incompetence and the efforts of the powers' own military forcesto steer their countries into a war. It's worth noting that for a long time, we didn't have a proper picture of all the factors that led to the war as we know it - there was an awful lot of data to be collated and analysis to be translated, and some (classified) sources weren't made available until many decades afterwards - by which time many histories of the War had already been written. In particular, an over-reliance on diplomatic-service communiques and records - which were readily available and easy to access - and the need to keep it simple for school-childrens' sake led to an over-emphasis on the importance of the treaty system. In any case, it was expected that there would be a European war at some point in the next decade or so. Just who it would involve and how big it would be was largely a matter of conjecture, but it would almost certainly be a civilised affair - as one would expect of the most civilised nation-states on earth.
However, June of 1914 saw an international crisis instigated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (yes, he later had a band named after him), heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The assassins were Serbian nationalists who had received backing from the Serbian Yugoslavist terror group "Unification Or Death," better known as the "Black Hand." You see, Franz Ferdinand had big plans to make Austria-Hungary into a far less centralized state than it was before, based off a federation of all the different ethnic groups of the Empire, rather than a hegemony of Germans and Hungarians. He was even planning to give political power to Serbian leaders. The ascendency of Franz Ferdinand to the throne might have placated the Serbian population of his country. A placated Serbian population and a stable Austria-Hungary would have been detrimental to the Serbian unification movement, therefore, Franz Ferdinand had to be eliminated. Austria then decided to teach Serbia a harsh lesson. Russia supported their fellow Slavs in Serbia, and Imperial Germany supported Austria. note Austria made roughly a dozen separate post-assassination demands of Serbia as a precondition to avoiding war, any one of which it would be humiliating for Serbia to concede to. Serbia conceded to all but one - that one essentially meant handing their sovereignty/independence to Austria. Strangely, Serbia was one of the last countries to be invaded during the course of the war. Interestingly enough, Gavrilo Princip (the man who assassinated the Archduke and Archduchess) was too young for the death penalty. He was given a sentence of 20 years and died in prison of tuberculosis in 1918.
For the reasons outlined earlier, there exists a great misconception that after these events, the system of military alliances set WWI off immediately. This is silly; treaties are just ink on paper, all the powers had ignored such agreements when it suited them - albeit with lesser powers. The way the war actually started was rather messy and involved an awful lot of errors and misunderstandings, some of which had persisted for decades and only then came to bite the continent in its collective backside.
Austria-Hungary by all means at this point wanted to go to war, but feared retaliation by Serbia's Russian allies. They believed, however, that they could be secure against Russian attack if Germany had their back. Germany was and had been for some time the greatest military power on earth. It had the best discipline, the best weapons, the best officers, and the second best fleet in the world. All they lacked were powerful allies. Instead, Germany was surrounded by powerful enemies with only a few weak allies.
Thus, the Austrians sent word asking if the German Kaiser would back their plan of invading Serbia. The Kaiser, in a moment of monumental oversight that was dismally typical of him, did not take the letter seriously - believing the Austrians would never be stupid enough to provoke the Russians. He promised his full support for whatever the Austrians saw fit to do.
Thanks to an incredibly botched opening move by Chief of Staff Conrad von Hoetzendorff- a man so Hawkish he had proposed war against Serbia annually- proved disasterous. note Austria-Hungary's only plan for a war, like Germany's, was very constrictive. It involved a war with Serbia, and stated that once they were mobilised all of the Empire's million reserve-troops should be sent to aid the regular army's one million against Russia's one-and-a-half million save for a small holding force to keep Serbia at bay; this was done to cover Germany's back while they invaded and crushed France. But Conrad altered the plan at the last minute to send the bulk of the Empire's reserves against Serbia. The Emperor noticed this and asked him to change it back, please, because at this rate Russia is likely to capture East Prussia and Silesia and might even make it to Berlin. Conrad then tried to change the plan again, and sent the greatly-delayed reserves to reinforce the Russian and Serbian fronts without giving either force enough men to launch an offensive.... and ordered them both to go on the attack anyway. The Austrians' botched invasion of tiny, highly-militarised - from its recent experiences fighting the Ottomans, Albanians, and Bulgarians- hilly-to-mountainous Serbia saw their only-slightly-more-numerous force devastated by the Balkan state's artillery and routed.
War between Austria and Serbia, however, did not immediately equal World War One. What it did do was convince Russia that Germany had something planned. They figured rightly that Austria would not act without Germany's backing, but they mistook this as the possible first step in a larger plan for initiating a war of conquest. Just to be safe, Russia began to mobilize its reserves. It would be six months before they would be ready for war.
This is the point at which the Great War becomes inevitable. Germany has long anticipated a war against Russia and France. It had feared and readied itself for this moment. They could mobilize their reserves in just two weeks. As stated, they had the best army in the world, but they could not fight a war on two fronts. If it came to that, they would be doomed. Their only chance at victory was to quickly eliminate France before the Russians could mobilize, then turn their army against Russia. For this to work, Germany had to act quickly, at the first sign of trouble. If the Russians mobilized their reserves, Germany couldn't afford to wait and see. The orders went out as soon as they received the news. note The Kaiser actually tried to abort the invasion of France, but due to the above-mentioned military plans on auto-pilot, his minister of war told him that he couldn't simply reverse all the trains. If he did (he could have- indeed, the man in charge of organizing the trains published a book after the war showing precisely how it could have been done), the war might have stayed as a local Germany/Austria-Hungary vs. Serbia/Russia war... assuming the French would be in the mood to not attack Germany of course. Which, to the Germans at least, didn't look very likely. Indeed, Germans did actually make a diplomatic gesture before starting the war against the French; demanding that, as a guarantee that the French would not try to take advantage of a war between Germany and Russia (which the French were legally obliged to enter, as a military ally of Russia), they should disarm and abandon their fortifications along the border. Needless to say that the French refused this demand.
Both France and Germany had, for nearly two decades, made various plans to invade each other through Belgium due to the country's weak military forces (she basically didn't have any outside of three ginormous fortresses along her chief railway lines) and good infrastructure as a result of her abundant mineral (iron+coal) wealth and early industrialisation and relative prosperity. German deployment plans called for, in the event of a Franco-German war, all available forces to be deployed against France. However, as a Franco-German-Russian war (and thus simultaneous Franco-Russian offensive into Germany) began to look more likely after 1905 and Germany's failure to re-establish her alliance with Russia, most deployment plans after 1904 called for at least 15% of Germany's troops to be deployed in Prussia to counter Russia. While Germany wanted to deploy more, the railway network would only allow up to 40% - and this would only be enough to achieve 1:1 parity of troop-numbers with Russia (rather than the 2:1 against a French offensive). Thus, even though a couple of Generalstaffreise wargames did experiment with focusing on defeating Russia's offensive, all the actual Deployment Plans called for deploying c.85-90% of troops in the west to defeat the French offensive. What would be done with the troops after they were deployed was left open-ended, as Germany's military doctrine called for the lower-level commanders to make their own decisions about what to do with their forces - though it was generally understood that the anti-France force would keep its 'right'/western wing strong so it could launch a strong counter-offensive against the sides of a French offensive directly into Germany and/or defend against a French offensive coming through Belgium and the Ardennes forest.
As it happened, the Western wing in 1914 decided to go on the offensive instead on the grounds that the coming war would be a long and damaging one to the very ground on which it was fought, thus making it imperative that it should not be fought on German soil (despite the many advantages that would confer). Therefore, Germany invaded Belgium with the forces of her right flank to make the war happen in not-Germany and preclude the French from occupying it first under their Plan XVII, which called for an immediate French invasion of southern Belgium in the event of any war with Germany. The invasion (followed by frequently exaggerated but sometimes dismally true tales of atrocities) was an excellent pretext for Britain to go to war against Germany. note Interestingly enough, the German Navy absolutely refused to contemplate a war with Britain and could not voice its disapproval loud enough when the Army brought it up with them. They did, however, manage to get the Army to divert a militia ('Landwehr') division and some hobbyists (local militia, gun-clubs, etc., etc.) to help defend the North German coast as per the navy's request, this being not even 20,000 men. The small size of the BEF (50,000 men) and its assumed ineffectiveness given its lack of artillery meant that it was regarded in the same manner as the French militia forces in German war-planning once it became clear that Britain might intervene on France's side in the event of a Franco-German war (i.e. from about 1904-5 and the Russo-Japanese War, Anglo-Russian Rapproachment, and Moroccan Crisis onwards) . When the two invasion forces tripped over one another in the Ardennes, the French forces made the mistake of attacking without scouting out the German forces or waiting for their artillery to catch up. They take heavy losses and inflict few in return, and the Germans' follow-up offensive to catch the damaged forces while they're still understrength and demoralised inflicts still-heavier losses. Ultimately, however, pursuing these forces draws the Germans too far forward and south - their left/eastern flank still needs to be covered and can't be linked-up with Alsace-Lorraine as the fortress-district of Verdun can't be taken, their right/western flank is completely open and vulnerable to any and all attack (particularly from Paris), and their individual forces are way too spread-out. This leaves them susceptible to even a half-arsed Entente counter-offensive...
The Ottoman Empire entered the alliance with the Central Powers (what Germany and Austria-Hungary came to be known as) through some trickery by the German Admiralty. note At the end of Summer in 1914, as war was rapidly approaching for Europe, France had troops stationed in its colonies in North Africa and naturally wanted to bring these troops back to French soil to defend itself from the German invasion that was sure to come. Britain and France were trying to coordinate naval efforts in an attempt to work together, so Britain's Mediterranean fleet was tasked with defending the French transports that were to ferry the men back to France. Unfortunately, Germany had two very powerful ships in the Mediterranean: the Battlecruiser Goeben and Light Cruiser Breslau commanded by Wilhelm Souchon. And wouldn't you know it: they were out looking to cause trouble. With orders to bomb French Philippeville in Africa, Souchon does so and promptly flees East. This attack gives the British Admiral Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, quite a fright at the thought of losing the transports. Milne eventually gets his act together and trails Souchon all the way to Sicily where Souchon was getting coal from then-neutral Italy (even with superior numbers Milne's ships were older and had much smaller guns; and a majority of his fleet was kept back West guarding the transports and hedging against an about-face he felt was coming from the Germans at any moment). Thanks to the British being argent about Italy's neutrality, Milne could not attack as Souchon took on coal. Souchon then goes on to continue his escape, with his destination now evident to be the Dardanelles. During this last leg of the Goeben's flight, Milne's subordinate Ernest Troubridge briefly engaged with the Goeben and Breslau, doing damage to neither with his severely underpowered and antiquated Armored Cruisers (Troubridge was severely punished for not pressing the attack more; but similar engagements in the following years have proven his decision to be prudent and he probably saved his four ships by retreating). Souchon leads his ships into the Dardanelles controlled by the Ottoman Empire, and thanks to hasty communications between embassies he is allowed passage. To keep the Ottoman Empire neutral (which was Germany's plan at the time), Germany sells Goeben and Breslau to the Ottoman Empire. The best sailors the Ottomans have are currently in Britain, stranded because Britain "requisitioned" two battleships they were meant to pick up when construction had finished. So Souchon offers to command and crew the Goeben and Breslau (now renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim and Midilli respectively), justifying this by saying that his crew was now Ottoman because they wore fezzes. However, Souchon isn't happy with neutrality and feels it is his duty to lead the Ottomans into the war. So in October, Souchon, now commander in chief of the Ottoman Navy, led the Ottomans past the point of no return and sailed Goeben, Breslau and a handful of Ottoman warships into the Black sea and attacked three Russian ports. Because the commander, the ships, and the men are all officially "Ottoman," the Ottoman Empire joins the war on the side of the Central Powers. By joining the war, the Ottoman Empire severely hampered Russia's ability to receive foreign military aid (see the paragraph on Russia below) and forced Britain to divert troops from the continent to fighting in the Middle East.
Several decades ago Victorian Britain had decided to get closer to - i.e. back on speaking terms with - France in order to iron their many thousands of miles of shared Colonial borders and thereby cut down on the defence budget. In the process they aligned themselves against their old allies, the Prussians, who soon trounced France and became the center of the unified Germany in the Franco-Prussian War. After several decades of colonial rivalry with the Germans, the British had become fearful of German power and saw the War as an opportunity to check what they saw as German expansionism. The invasion of Belgium - a country created after the Napoleonic Wars for the express purpose of being neutral and independent, and whose neutrality and independence was guaranteed by all - was the perfect reason to get involved. Indeed, France had their own plans to invade Belgium itself if German forces were allowed transit through it. Albert's refusal of access to the Germans shelved that plan (see Crowning Moment Of Awesome below). note While Britain had guaranteed Belgian neutrality and independence, this in no way meant it actually would follow through. However, Britain's relations with Germany were also at an all-time low following a decades-long naval arms race (largely Kaiser Wilhelm's doing). This and their fear of a German-dominated Europe combined to make entering the war on the side of France and Russia look like a good idea. The Japanese came in on the Entente's side because of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and promises of German territory in 1914, and made a good showing in every theater in which they were involved, especially in the Far Eastern and Mediterranean theaters.
The Germans took the offensive on the 4th of August and began pushing through Belgium, regardless of the hostilities. The tiny Belgian army was no match for the juggernaut of the German war machine, but they fought bravely still and delayed the Germans, especially by holding them up with crucial forts along the border, such as in Liege. The Germans still managed to push through their territory, but there were many hang-ups. It was a particularly hot summer in Western Europe, so their own share of men and horses collapsed from heat stroke, and there were issues with the troops outpacing their logistical supplies. Despite some of these setbacks, the Belgian capital of Brussels fell into German hands.
The French made grabs at Alasce, but their success was limited and the German advance would drain any offensive mobility they had. The Germans pushed through Northern France, winning some victories in the Battle of the Frontiers but being ultimately delayed by the British Expeditionary Force and French rearguards. This allowed the main French and British forces to redeploy outside of Paris, completely voiding the German plan of encircling these troops. This culminated in arguably the most crucial battle of the Western front, the First Battle of the Marne. French and British troops stopped the German offensive with a counterattack on the River Marne. The Germans were simply outmatched by Entente's resistance. Although roughly equal in numbers and equipment, the Germans had just trudged through nearly month of battles in Belgium and lacked artillery support. In addition to those Entente forces that had trudged against them, the back of the offensive was held up by the French garrison of Paris, who were an army in their own right and were both fresh and ready.
The Entente - thanks to determined Belgian resistance, the fighting retreat of the British Expeditionary Force from Mons, and Foch's counter-attack at the Marne stopped the German advance before they could reach Paris. The result was a race to the sea (or rather, mutual attempts at outflanking which ended there) and entrenchment of lines. The subsequent trench warfare became the most iconic image of the war, as both sides began to hunker down. It doesn't take a stunning tactician to know that pointing two fortifications at each other won't result in much offensive mobility, and thus the Western Front, despite- and because of-being one of the most hotly contested and most (in)famous parts of the war, began to slow to a standstill as neither side could break the stalemate. Germany's plan for a quick end to the war by seizing Paris was most certainly shattered.
1915 became a stalemate. Germany tried for the offensive, directed at the British, but were pushed back due to logistical problems and an unwillingness of either side to budge. The British and Canadians then led an offensive at Vimy Ridge with some success. The Entente would stay on the offensive for the majority of the war, slowly but surely pushing back the Germans. Another offensive began in Champagne later that year, with both sides heavy losses, but the Entente taking the worse of it while failing to make the Germans budge in a truly sizable way. Further offensives at Loos fared similarly. All in all the whole year on the Western front was marked by failed offensives and a growing sense of futility, probably even more than in 1916.
Meanwhile, the war in the sky was on. Planes, up to this point, had only been equipped as scouts. However, a French pilot named Roland Garros equipped his plane with machine guns and became the first pilot to shoot down an enemy craft as such. The Germans reverse engineered his plane and started producing fighter pilots. They had mad a marginally better airforce, and their heavy deployments of fighters meant the Entente were blind, having all their scouts shot down.
This began essentially an arms race between the two sides as each developed more and more weapons to break the stalemate, with varying success. The Germans made use of chemical weapons, the Brits topped them with tanks, and so on so forth. What absolutely nobody in any position of responsibility seemed to realise, however, was that reality was the greatest constraining factor upon either side's ability to sustain an offensive. That is to say, that shortages of food and ammo made it impossible to fight. This sounds obvious, but the complete lack of focus on the logistics of road- and railway-warfare eludes most accounts of the war.
The Somme offensive was one of the most infamous battles of the entire war, especially the much-mythologized First Day. The lack of coordination between artillery and infantry coupled with inexperienced British soldiers and well-dug in German defenses and defenders resulted in bloody slaughter followed by gradual, costly advances. The infantry was still lacking and the artillery faced continuing shortages and a misconception that it could win battles by itself; because of that the German defenders sat out a massive bombardment that was meant to destroy them and then popped out to pepper the British forces advancing under the assumption they would occupy the "vacant" positions. While artillery is crucial it does not win battles by itself as some previously thought, but what is typically ignored is that even on the first day the French and the British forces next to them *did* do quite well, and over the next several months the Entente artillery and infantry managed to advance solidly in spite of numerous German counterattacks and great cost. Tanks made their first appearance on the battlefield and helped rip a (relatively) large gash in the German line, but were inadequately reliable and numerous to have a decisive effect.
In the end, the Entente liberated the Somme River basin at appalling cost in time and lives while the Germans failed to prevent them from doing it at similar cost. The latter beat a scorched earth fallback that ceded even more land than they lost in combat after thoroughly burning, poisoning, and destroying everything they could in the ceded area. Perhaps the most-neglected question about Somme is why on earth it happened in the first place? The answer: Verdun.
The Verdun offensive was launched by Germany as part of her new Western Front Commander- von Falkenhayn's- strategy of "bleeding France dry" by killing so many of her men that she would sue for peace rather than lose any more and/or taking a vital area in a crushing swoop. The area they chose was the Verdun Salient, a small ring of French forts centered on the town of Verdun jutting into German territory, supplied only by one road and a light single-tracked railway while the German side facing it had three double-tracked railway lines and even more roads. The idea was to get a massive superiority in forces, smash through to take Verdun and kill and capture as many French soldiers as possible, and hand France a painful enough defeat that they might sue for peace. It did not work; after initial victories the French were able to regroup and turn the remaining fortresses into modernized death dealers that could hold out against great odds, and kept the area supplied well-enough that the Germans were actually the ones who had more soldiers (more than a million to France's "mere" million) die and be crippled as the ground they took was slowly lost. Falkenhayn realized the unfolding fiasco and "retconned" the logic from the offensive, claiming he had never intended to take Verdun itself (when he totally had) and that instead it was meant to tie the French down defending it and kill so many they would give up (which didn't happen). The rest of the budding dictatorship were unamused, and the reverses at the Somme and Verdun led to Falkenhayn being sacked.
The USA was still out of it for the same old reasons - strong isolationist fervor among the American populacenote in particular, a fair number of those of Irish descent saw the war as an opportunity for the British to get their collective ass kicked, something they were greatly in favor of due to resentment over how the British had treated their ancestors, families, and in some cases themselves, a worry over a possible repeat of the numbers of dead and crippled from their Civil War, doubts over the loyalty of the German immigrants who comprised a considerable amount of the country's ethnic makeup, and a perceived lack of relevance (i.e, "What does it matter to us if Europe shoots itself up?"). That said, the USA continued trade with the Entente(and the Central Powers on the rare occasions they could slip ships in) and letting them place massive orders for war-materiel with US firms. This didn't slip past Germany, which largely started unrestricted submarine warfare because of this —the Lusitania', a US ship whose sinking by a German Unterseeboot caused popular outrage in the USA, was a munitions ship disguised as a passenger ship with unknowing passengers and began trying to fight Bush War throughout Latin America against American dominance. Thus, the US was not truly neutral and the Germans were not to it.
As for Italy, PM Francesco Giolitti had made it back in 1882 one of the signatories of the Triple Alliance (that is, a defensive agreement signed by Austria-Hungary, the German Empire and the Kingdom of Italy itself); this however proved extremely unpopular with most Italians, who not only saw the Austrians as their long-time enemy but spent most of the mid-1800s fighting them during the Wars of Italian Independence. Moreover, Italy claimed some territories - namely Trentino, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Istria and Dalmatia - which not only had been part of some of the previous Italian states but were also inhabited by an ethnic Italian majority. These were still under Austrian control, and the Austrians weren't willing to cede them. By 1915 most intellectuals - like Gabriele d'Annunzio - began pushing to enter the war on the Franco-British side and the rest of the public opinion followed quickly: on May 24, 1915, a formal declaration of war was sent and the Italian troops began crossing the Piave river.
The first weeks of fighting along the Alpine arch shattered any illusion of an easy victory as both armies soon became involved in a sluggish, deadly stalemate; Italy had joined a war of attrition in which whomever managed to hold the highest peak could easily shower the enemy with bombs - and the Austrians were the ones holding most of the high terrain at the start of the conflict. The Italians had to fight hard in order to even get near one such peaks, storm it (or blow it up, if necessary) and then hold it waiting for the inevitable counter-attack; as if "ordinary" trench warfare wasn't pleasant enough such a mountainous, frozen hellhole claimed the lives of many. The Isonzo river also proved to be a mighty obstacle and both armies fought no less than eleven - and equally indecisive battles - in order to cross it hoping to break the enemy lines.
A senile, grade-A idiot by the name of Luigi Cadorna - whose fondness of frontal assaults nearly costed Italy the war - was in charge of the Royal Italian Army; the Austrian High Command, headed by the aforementioned Conrad von Hoetzendorf, was only slightly better. The course of the war wouldn't turn in favour of the Italians until 1917 when, after the near-total defeat at Caporetto, the Parliament realised the utter incompetency of the butcher they had appointed as Commander-in-Chief. General Armando Diaz replaced him, and the soldiers' morale soon improved (to give you an idea, soldiers under Cadorna's command not only weren't given leaves but were also held personally responsible whenever the general's plans were met by failure; those who refused to fight were summarily executed via decimation - meaning that one in ten soldiers would be chosen randomly amongst the troops and then beaten by his comrades in order "to set an example" - all while the Carabinieri were acting as barrier troops, always ready to machine-gun deserters and whomever they thought wasn't at his place...).
A year and a million casualties later, the tide finally had turned and the stalemate broken.
The Eastern Front
The Russians started the Eastern Front according to their pre-war agreement with France, invading Germany to try to draw German forces from the push on Paris. It was something the Tsar would live to regret, the force of c.300,000 men sent there lost nearly 200,000 men killed or (overwhelmingly) captured at the hands of the 120,000 German troops that caught them by surprise with a well-executed counter-offensive (at Tannenburg and The Masurian Lakes). As if to add insult to injury, the troops the Germans did redeploy didn't arrive until after the two Russian armies were all but destroyed. However, the main effort on the Eastern Front was supposed to have been the Austro-Hungarian offensive against Russia (done to cover Germany's back so she could march on Paris with her full strength, as per pre-war agreement), but this failed spectacularly with the Austro-Hungarian army actually being pushed back by the Russian counter-offensive. Most importantly, that winter the Ottomans tried to invade Georgia. The Russians fared a little better against the Ottomans, who were somehow in an even more hopeless position. They began the Bergman Offensive in 1914, pushing against Ottoman forces in the Caucasus. The Russians would start using Armenian volunteer regiments. This "betrayel" against the Ottomans would be cited as one of the reasons for the Armenian genocide later into the war. The Russians saw success at both the Battle of Ardahan and the Battle of Sarikamish. Sarikamish was a complete and utter defeat for the Ottomans, with the whole army turning in full flight after Hafiz Hakka Pasha ordered them to. Despite the failure of the Ottomans, the Central Powers continued to push onward clear into 1915, winning a victory at the Second Battle of Masurian Lakes. They also launched a successful offensive in Galicia, and began to expel the Russians from their far western territory. By the end of 1915, the Russians would be fully driven out of Poland.
Russia did very badly for a reason; their soldiers fought as bravely as any others, but the army was still set-up like an eighteenth-century fighting force; there was a General Staff but it was seriously underfunded and actually had to wrestle with the Ministry of Defence and the Grand Dukes of the Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery in each and every single matter from funding allocations to strategic priorities. In practice the Ministry ended up appointing both Corps-Commanders for the Northern and Southern Corps, but the General Staff ended up appointing the Corps-Commanders' assistants, and both parties wrangled to appoint the Army Commanders and Division Commanders who served under them. In practice, the Russian Army was severely dysfunctional as both Corps Commanders and several of the Army Commanders under them did not act in accordance with the strategic priorities of either their Corps or the Russian War Effort as a whole - they largely did their own thing and had to be bought or bullied into acting in accordance with any plans. Numerous Commanders were also incompetent - while the Officer Corps as a whole was largely composed of men from the lower- and middle-classesnote Which was an unusual thing for that day and age. The Germans' Officer Corps was dominated at every level by the Prussian Nobility and was something of a refuge from social mobility, whereas Russia's was a means thereof, appointment to the post of Division-Commander and above had a lot to do with your political connections to the Grand Dukes, the Ministry, and the General Staff.
Though the Russian and German-Austro-Hungarian forces were relatively evenly matched at first, given that the Austro-Hungarian Army was even more dysfunctional than the Russian Army, this changed after the Austro-Hungarians' repeated humiliations in 1914-15 led them in 1915 to defer the running of the entire war-effort on the Eastern Front to the German General Staff. The Russians' dysfunctional system remained largely intact despite their own setbacks in 1914-15, the Grand Dukes and Ministry openly conspiring with the Generals to blame General Headquarters and The Tsar for their own blunders - they accused them both of providing the troops with insufficient equipment and particularly ammunition. 'Shell Shortage' became an almost farcical excuse for incompetence of every kind, mostly notably the tendency of many Russian Generals to obsess over fortresses and fortress artillery... in a War (on the Eastern Front at least) of highly mobile warfare and in an age wherein the fortresses they practically worshiped could be leveled in a mere day of bombardmentnote Or, as happened much more often, simply surrounded and starved out having contributed nothing to the campaign. Though there were material shortages in the first year of war, they were entirely solved by mid-1916 and the 'Shell Shortage' was actually the product of an attempt by Generals to mimic the warfare of the Western Front: they would horde massive stores of shells while firing virtually none for weeks if not months at a time, then use them all in massive day- and week-long bombardments before making massive frontal attacks... which made zero head-way because the bombardment would always tell their enemies exactly were the Russian assault was going to take place, allowing them to shift their reserves there ready to meet the Russians' frontal assaults when the bombardment stopped.
The Serbian front opened with a similar plan to the Schlieffen Plan in which Austria-Hungary would smash through Serbia before Russia could mobilize against them. The Austro-Hungarians had hoped by that point that the Balkan Front wouldn't expand any more than it did. Unfortunately for the Central Powers, Serbia did well in the opening hostilities. Despite still being in a state of recovery from the Balkan Wars and lacking the equipment to even field a full army (some of its troops still wore civilian garb), the Serbians were able to win, mostly by massive tactical oversights by the Austrian command.
The Austro-Hungarian general on the field was Oskar Potiorek. Potiorek wanted to win the campaign before Franz Joseph's birthday and, like many generals of the early war, he was both overly ambitious and over-confident. This led him to the Battle of Cer, in which he made the tactical mishaps of attacking the fortified Serbs in hilly terrain and with only half his strength. Unsurprisingly, the Serbian command thought the notion of it being an actual attack was simply too stupid, but when it became clear that this was indeed the real offensive and not a feint to draw away attention, the Serbs brought in reinforcements and won.
Although the share of bad tactical decisions did not belong only to Potiorek. The Serbs were pressured by their allies (Russia, in particular) to launch an offensive into Austria-Hungary. This idea was very bad, as the under-supplied and under-equipped Serbs could barely manage a defensive war, let alone an offensive one. Potiorek decided to take the chance to attack the less defended Serbian homeland, and he crossed the Drina River with his troops. The Serbs were indeed caught off guard, but the river crossing was perilous enough that the Austro-Hungarian armies lost the initial engagements. But before long, the Serbs were beaten back and withdrew into the hills, and the Austro-Hungarians gained a toe-hold across the river. The Serbians set up for trench warfare, but they were outmatched in this regard because the artillery advantage of the Austro-Hungarians.
The Austro-Hungarians finally forced them back and took Belgrade on December 2nd of 1914, but the Serbs wouldn't give up so easily. Before the Austro-Hungarians could recoup, the entire Serbian army came down and them and sent them into a massive retreat on December 3rd. The Austro-Hungarians fled back across the Drina as 1914 came to an end, and as they had been on the Marne, the hopes of a quick victory were shattered on the Drina.
This led to what is widely considered one of the greatest military blunders of the war - the Gallipoli Campaign. Orchestrated primarily by Winston Churchill, the idea was that before the Ottoman Army could be reconstituted a small but elite Entente force would force the Dardanelles. At one swoop this would allow Russia to sell her raw materials and particularly food to the wider world again (pre-war she'd been heavily dependent on exporting goods through the straits), allow the giant back-log of munitions the Russians had bought from her allies and the USA to be delivered at a higher rate, and probably take the Ottomans out of the war. It all seemed to be such a good idea.
Except the Ottoman Army wasn't quite gone, and the people the Entente assigned to command the operation proved to be extremely uninspired choices. The all-naval attempt faltered on the capitol's guns and initial landing attempts blundered about until the Turks could get organized enough to defend themselves. Increasing the size of the Entente force to take the strait didn't help, because their supply problems (they lacked a proper port, railways, and proper roads) meant they weren't able to field a force big enough to overcome that of the Ottomans. The Russians weren't able to help as much as they'd hoped, either, because Austria-Hungary and Germany went on the offensive against Russia that year (in part to help the Ottomans, but largely because France was just too tough a nut to crack until German industry had started churning out adequate ammo). Australian and New Zealander national consciousness were given a certain kick-start as a result of the whole debacle, what with their ANZAC troops facing their first major campaign in it.
By then the war looked bleak for Russia. With the failure of Gallipoli, they had little hope to get relief from the Ottomans or to get supplies through the Black Sea. The Russians resumed the Offensive at the Battle of Malazgirt. The conditions in the hills were rough, and in the end neither side was ready. The Russians may have "won", but in the end the line changed very little and both sides sustained casualties. Furthermore, the Ottomans regrouped and reorganized efficiently following the battle.
Needless to say the front was going poorly, and by 1916 things were slowing down. The Russians may have been advancing, albeit slowly, but both sides were taking huge losses and the Russians were facing strategic troubles from the north. They had managed to drive them out with key battles at Erzican and Van, which was a siege by the Ottomans not against the Russians, but against the Armenian resistance.
It was by now that the Serbs had finally been conquered. The combined forces were able to conquer their country, but only after two years of brutal resistance. Greece would been coerced into the war after heated negotiation. The idea of who to side with, if anyone at all, drove Greece into basically a mini-Civil War. Before things got out of hand, King Constantine I resigned and his son, Alexander, put Greece firmly in with the Entente. However, later that year the Central powers also got a boost when Bulgaria entered their side of the war. Bulgaria was eager to take territory from Serbia and the other Balkan states, and their decision was motivated by Russian losses in 1914-1915 and the failure of the Entente at Gallipoli.
With these ill tidings, the Serbs were finally defeated after the Germans, the Austro-Hungarians, and the Bulgarians all ganged up on them. Although some French and British forces had arrived to help, the bulk of the action still fell on the Serbs. The Serbian army was forced into a full retreat. They fled their country into neutral Albania and from there they would go on to help the Entente and reclaim their country late into the war. Still, for now, things looked bleak for the Enttente on the Eastern front. Russia was being defeated time and time again, offensives into Ottoman lands had failed and supply shipments through the Black Sea were still to perilous. Serbia had been defeated. Montenegro fell in 1916.
Romania entered the war on the Entente side in 1916 hoping to gain the largely ethnic Romanian territory of Transylvanianote The Entente are now believed to have just promised this to get Romania into the war without intending to fulfill it; after a couple of years of stalling, Romania was only able to take it by invading Hungary and toppling their Socialist Republic under Bela Kun, seizing Transylvania on the way out. Even then, it took lot of activism by Queen Marie and the Romanian delegation for Romania's control of the region to be legitimised under the Treaty of Trianon (signed in the Trianon Room of the Versailles-palace).,and promptly got defeated thanks to poor training, horrible planning and (historically completely understandable) distrust of Russia.
It's worth noting that the only Russian offensive that actually succeeded, the 'Brusilov Offensive' of 1916 under Corps-Commander Brusilov of the Southern Front, succeeded even though he used barely any shells; he was the head of a small faction who realised that Mobile Warfare was actually possible on The Eastern Front because of the massive distances involved - though the forces on The Western Front were nearly as big as those on the East, the 'front' was only a fifth as long (though much, much better-supplied given the far-better rail infrastructure)! His offensive was considered a mere 'experiment', however, and he was only allowed to try it out on the condition that he wouldn't be given any more men or ammunition than normal - there was a 'serious' offensive planned by the Northern Front which was meant to do the 'real' work of distracting Germany from Verdun. The fact that his rapid-movement-and-encirclement approach succeeded when the massive-prolonged-bombardment-and-frontal-attack precedents of 1914-15 and counterpart of 1916 failed was regarded as a kind of fluke and completely ignored. Worse still, the offensive by the Northern Front consumed the manpower and munitions which (technically) Brusilov could have used to mop up the routing Austro-Hungarian forces and break the back of their army for good. As it was, the Northern Offensive consumed vast numbers of men and went nowhere, and the Austro-Hungarian Army was allowed to regroup and was put under the Germans' direct command note Brusilov's techniques ultimately made a great contribution to Entente victory, however, as the Germans had a look at them and said "Wow, look at that! He also had lesser resources than his enemies, but still won some tactical victories! If we form specialised assault-units like his we can win battles against the Entente!" instead of thinking "Eurgh, we're just like him. His campaign failed even though he won so many battles! That just shows how important campaign-planning and logistics are - we should reform our forces so we can win campaigns and thus the war despite our lesser resources!" This guaranteed Germany's defeat as it basically handed their best troops over to The Entente (the death-rate for stormtroops was appalling) and meant that the German army didn't focus on anything that might have actually helped them win the war (i.e. operational/campaign planning, efficient management of engineering and logistics).
By 1917 the Russian Army had been pushed back hundreds of miles and had lost all of Poland and Lithuania to the Germans (though in fairness they had some competent chaps like Brusilov, who in 1916 had gone back on the offensive and broken the back of the Austro-Hungarian army). Worse, Urban Russia suffered an economic crisis as inflation and the shortage of consumer-goods in the economy led to Russia's huge peasant-farmer sector being reluctant to sell their grain. The result was urban famine in a country that had been a food-exporter before the war cut off the German and other overseas markets (thanks to the closing of the Dardanelles) and continued to produce a healthy grain-surplus. The eventual result, at the end of the winter of 1916-17, was a near-total breakdown of civil order in St Petersburg as the city ran out of food entirely. Though no-one knew what to make of the situation, the one thing most of the country's political elite could agree on was that Tsar Nicholas II should resignnote Even though, doing so was legally impossible under Russian Imperial Law. The result was a Provisional Government and a system of Urban Communes established by the country's industrial workers and soldiers. The uneasy alliance between the two broke down after the elections of 1917 when the radical 'Bolshevik' faction of the Communist Party arrested the Provisional Governmentnote Claiming that it had tried to destroy the Urban Communes aka 'Soviets'. What happened was the de facto dissolution of the entire Russian State as the Ministries stood idle and the soldiers of the former-Army were told to go home... and did so. Shortly thereafter, when The Central Powers kept advancing on Leningrad and Moscow despite the laughably ineffectual attempts of the Soviets' tiny forces of Revolutionary Militia to stop them, the Bolsheviks signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in which they ceded Poland, The Baltic Territories, Belorussia, and The Ukraine to Germany and Austria-Hungary. By the end of 1918, Russia had descended into Civil War with the Bolsheviks/Communists/Soviets/'The Reds' using a new 'Red Army' they had originally created (recruiting from the ranks of the old Imperial army, including virtually the entire former-General Staff) to defend Russia from the Central Powers, having recognized as they did that they needed a proper army in case the Germans went on the offensive again and tried to destroy their regime because they were Dirty Communists. The former-Grand Dukes and nobility, the remnants of the Ministry, and the commanders associated with them rose up against them to lead a faction of ex-servicemen known as 'The Whites', and virtually the entire Russian Imperial countryside refused to have anything to do with either faction and actively fought them both as 'The Greens'.
By 1917, things were going poorly for the Ottoman Empire (well, truthfully the whole war had gone poorly for them since day one). Germany, as they did with Austria-Hungary, had sent troops to support the crumbling Ottoman armies. They were struggling under nationalist revolt in Armenia and being pushed steadily backwards by the Anglo-Egyptian forces creeping up through Palestine. In October of 1918, the Ottomans finally conceded their defeat and signed the Armistice of Mudros. They awaited the inevitable partitioning of their empire.
The War at Sea
The ‘War at Sea’ is probably the least focused upon front of World War One. Unlike World War II, which featured massive naval battles in the Pacific that capture the idealized view of the war, World War I’s naval combat was not as glamorous or as interesting. Pitched battles were uncommon and those that did happen were often smaller than those of World War II. Still, it was crucial to the Entente success of the late war and indeed the War at Sea may have been the only thing stopping the Central Powers from winning.
Prior to the war, there was a huge naval arms race between the two world naval powers; Britain and Germany. Germany had long been a land-based military power for almost all of its history. Bismarck and his contemporaries believed maintaining a “continental power” in Europe on land was the key to Germany’s success, but Kaiser Wilhelm II saw things differently. He believed Germany should achieve international glory by gaining overseas colonies. Thus he began the construction of a new navy as a prestige project that could be a source of national pride - setting the target-size at 2/3 the size of Great Britain’s. Britain wasn't having with that at her time of life because a slow-moving fleet of battleships would be useless for fending off France's fleet of fast-moving commerce-raiding 'cruiser' ships - but it would be able to counter Britain's own (somewhat aged) fleet of battleships. What sparked the arms-race in earnest was the development of a new type of Capital (super-big) Ship that was half again more powerful and faster than its predecessors.
The HMS ‘’Dreadnought’’ was a battleship equipped with ultra-modern mechanical computing machines, steam turbines, and 'target-range finding' equipment that made use of some of the very latest advances in mathematics and engineering. This meant that her ten big guns (which weren't superimposed, six of which were mounted on the centerline, and eight of which could be used in a broadside) - all other battleships afloat at the time of had, at most, just four and were smaller than the "Dreadnaught" - could accurately hit a target several kilometres away rather than just a few hundred metres away. The HMS "Dreadnought" actually wasn't the first all-big-gun battleship to be designed. Both the Japanese Satsuma-class (which were completed as very large pre-Dreadnoughts due to budget and technical issues) and United States South Carolina-class (which were delayed because the US Congress wasn't really all that inclined to pass a bill which would pay for them) were designed before the "Dreadnought". The "Dreadnought" was the first to be completed. note Before and during WWI the US and Japan were both British allies but weren't on friendly terms with each other.
Pre-Dreadnought Battleships were equipped with dozens of smaller, but less powerful, guns that could fire several kilometres and were expected to do most of the work in destroying enemy ships - by getting a lucky shot on its 'bridge' (command booth where the Captain commanded the ship from) or simply hitting it with so many hundreds of shells over the course of several hours that it would hopefully either surrender or catch fire and blew up (both of these results being seen in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905). But these new Dreadnought-type Battleships could sink another Battleship in just a couple of dozen shots and just a few tens of minutes. This started a race to equip the battleships of the world with these new 'computing machines' and 'rangefinders' as well as make sure that all new ships had the latest models of those things built-in. British ships specialized in an absurd output of fire, with massive guns and quicker fire rates. German ships were based on optics and maneuverability. Other ships types such as battlecruisers, destroyers, and submarines (such as the eponymous German U-Boat) would be integral to the war, but the battleship was dominant. Some new forces like radio became important to naval combat as well.
Naval combat was witnessed all across the Earth, from Jutland to the Pacific. Entente shipping sent troops from India, weapons and supplies from America, and food from abroad to places like Great Britain and France. The German fleet was largely scattered around the globe, so they used this advantage to go hunting this shipping. They used U-Boats to harass Entente shipping long into the war. The Entente retaliated with their own ships, hunting the scattered raiders and submarines all across the globe.
Because of the nature of this “search and destroy” style of warfare, there were few large naval engagements. Still, there were some massive battles of note.
The first of the major battles was fought on the 28th of August, 1914, on the Helgioland Bight (the German Coast). It was a trend setter for the rest of the war. The British ambushed the unsuspecting Germans and did heavy damage to the fleet. The British were able to sink some of the German ships. It was hardly a surprise, as the Germans were badly outmatched strength-wise. The Brits returned home victorious, only losing one cruiser. The German Fleet was once again restricted to port as the British gained control of the North Sea with little opposition. That dominance would not ever be shaken through the course of the war, although the Germans would challenge it at the Battle of Jutland.
The Battle of Dogger Bank on the 24th of January, 1915, was far less conclusive. The British intercepted orders about a raiding squadron and went to engage them. They caught the Germans unaware and right where expected, but the German ships turned tail and ran. The British managed to catch up far enough to get in range, and sunk the SMS Blücher at the cost of one of their flagships. Still, due to some communications mix up, the British disengaged and the rest of the German squadron made it home in one piece. The loss of the Blücher wasn’t an easy one, but taking the HMS Lion out of action offset the damage slightly.
The largest engagement of the war fittingly happened very close to one of the largest land battles of the war, the Battle of the Somme. The Battle of Jutland, also known as the Battle of Skaggerak happened on the 31st of May in 1916. It was the first and only clash of battleships in the war, and one of the largest naval battles in all of history. Jutland proved inconclusive. Although the Germans scored a tactical victory by outmaneuvering their foes, the British still drove their fleet to harbor, where they remained for the rest of the war. German historians claim/ed that it was a Pyrrhic Victory for Germany, as Britain suffered heavier losses in terms of ships and men, including three of their Glass Cannon Battlecruisers. However, British scholarship has argued that Britain's only objective was simply to keep the German fleet out of "their" North Sea, which they did - the Kaiser's fleet was badly damaged (several of their battleships were effectively knocked out of the war) and spent the rest of the war in home waters, whilst the British quickly replenished their own losses.
Why were these battles important? Well, maintaining dominance of the North Sea and other waters around the globe was integral to the British war effort. Their plan called for a blockade of German ports so nothing could get in (or out). This ruined the German economy and led to massive raw-material (heavy metals used to make stronger steel alloys, gold, aluminium, oil, rubber, coffee, tea, wheat, Sichuanese pig-intestine used for sausages) and food shortages in 1917-18, eventually culminating in full-on food riots as the economy teetered on the brink of total collapse. The battles weren't just restricted to the North Sea. Skirmishes were across the globe. In the Atlantic, shipping from the (then neutral) USA was threatened by the U-boats. The Germans, already under blockade, were trying to cut-off the British Isles from their overseas supplies. Although numerous merchant vessels were sunk, the sheer amount of allies or neutral powers lending arms, ammo, food, and supplies to Britain offset this cost. The U-boat blockade never neared the effectiveness of the British one. Food supplies and other goods did dwindle in Britain, but there was a heavy price to pay as the US would intervene in the war after the sinking of the Lusitania.
The Mediterranean didn't see any real battles besides the attack on Gallipoli, but the Adriatic sea saw the birth of asymmetric naval warfare. The Italians, realising the inferiority of their fleet, began using small motorboats which had been modified to hold and launch torpedoes; two such vessels managed to sink the Austrian warships Szent Istvan and Viribus Unitis while they were moored in the harbour at Pola. The Italian Regia Marina (Royal Navy) was also the first to employ frogmen.
In the neighboring Black Sea, however, saw more action. The Ottoman fleet was vastly outmatched by the Russians, but the Germans lent them two of their ships from their own Mediterranean fleet. This caused the action to sway back and forth before Russia finally gained control over the Black Sea... just before their revolution forced them out of the war in 1917.
In the rest of the world, the German East Asia Squadron scored a number of early victories before being mopped up by the Entente. At Coronel off Chile Germany's only powerful global flotilla under Maximillian von Spee inflicted severe casualties on a British squadron, before being wiped out themselves off the Falkland Islands. The light cruiser SMS Emden bombarded Chennai and destroyed a Russo-French squadron in the Straits of Malacca before it was caught and destroyed by the HMAS Syndey off Cocos. The SMS Konigsberg menaced the British in Africa before being wrecked in the Rufiji Delta. A combined British/Japanese operation (under Japanese command) took the German-held port of Qingdao in China. This action is notable for highlighting The Empire of Japan's new place in world affairs and featuring the first naval air raid, launched from the Japanese seaplane tender Wakamiya - the shape of things to come. The last German warship outside the North Sea, the SMS Dresden, was ambushed whilst coaling at Cumberland Bay in Chile and destroyed by the cruisers HMS Glasgow and HMS Kent in 1915.
The War at Sea had a huge impact on the Central Powers' logistical network. They began to run out of horses, ammo, medicine, and food. To supply the army with these things, they had to take them from the population, greatly pissing them off. In the end, it may not have been the Germans who started The Great War, but they sure as hell ended it. The German people basically had a revolution because of the ruinous effect the war had on the German people and economy. The Kaiser would flee to the Netherlands. The victory was essentially owed to the navies of the Entente, especially because the Kaiserliche Marine would end up mutinying near the end of the war.
Had the Kaiser's fleet succeeded in fighting off the British, Germany may have had more luck importing (and exporting) goods. With that influx of goods, things such as the Spring Offensive may have succeeded as well, and the Central Power(s) could have won the war. Alas, it was not so. The Kaiser's fleet, his pride and joy that he had spent years building -raising like a child- had failed him.
A War of The World
The British had a mini-conflict all of their own in Ireland, where the Easter Rising took place. Ironically, the war had seemed to Britain like a golden opportunity to submerge Irish tensions (which were getting close to bursting over the issue of Home Rule)... but, like just about every other war aim, things went badly wrong.
It is important to note that this war has almost always been called some form of "The World War" for a reason. Participants from all 6 inhabited continents of the globe would fight in the war, directly or indirectly. The ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) fought in Gallipoli, Europe, and would also occupy German Samoa and New Guinea. Japan and Britain worked to take Germany's Micronesian colonies, as well as fight at the important battle of Tsingtao, seizing the German colonies in China along with British support. Japan had operated under the idea that they would be rewarded for their efforts by basically being given these territories. In fact, the Japanese had grand plans of Empire-building in the Pacific and uniting the Asian peoples under one flag pretty much since the Boshin War and their start as Imperial Japan. BY 1914, all German colonies in the Pacific were seized.
India played a big role, lending supplies and soldiers to the British forces. India had long been the "jewel of Britain's empire" and it was indeed impressive. There was an ever growing industrial base that worked to provide supplies to the British Empire, as well as a massive population. Over one million Indians served in World War One, fighting at The Battle of Ypres and in Africa.
Speaking of which, the African front was surprisingly one of the longest campaigns of the war. German colonies in Togo and Cameroon were seized (once again by the end of 1914) but not for lack of trying; the Germans did score some victories at the Battle of Nsanakong and the Battle of Garua. In fact, Germany's Cameroonian colony would hold out until 1916. The only front where Germany clearly won was in German East Africa. German commander Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck managed to tie down 300,000 Entente troops with a far smaller force of 14,000, mostly made of African soldiers. He was said to be A Fatherto His Men and he treated the native troops as equals. He fought through the whole war and only surrendered in late November 1918, after being informed by the British (while he was making plans for another offensive) that Germany herself had already surrendered.
Fighting also occurred in the Middle East by a mix of Anglo-Egyptian forces, the revolting Arabs, and the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire, being the "sick man of Europe" that is was, failed to put up a lot of meaningful resistance in these campaigns, as the British trained and supplied Arabs were able to harass them with guerrilla tactics while the British and Egyptians brought up the bulk of the fighting. Although German forces would be sent to bolster Ottoman ranks, it was clearly not enough, and the Kaiser knew that full well. The Ottomans had made many enemies and were already struggling internally before the war.
The Arabs were promised a grand kingdom in the Middle East in return for aiding the British, but they ended up fairly swindled by the end, with the Brits taking over the majority of the former Ottoman territory, leading to the mess that is the Middle East today. The Ottoman Empire was restricted to Turkey and later suffered from revolution.
Brazil would join the Entente for a similar reason to the USA; Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare had killed Brazilians and destroyed Brazilian ships. Their navy teamed up with the British to hunt down the remnants of Germany's naval forces.
Still, the war saw the inevitable end of Germany's colonial enterprises, but it put a surprising strain on the Entente's colonies as well. The massive loss of life on India's part had caused a massive divide between them and the British. Before, many Indians believed that Western civilization was a good force, but after seeing the devastation wrought by the First World War, there was a much larger outcry for independence. Other Commonwealth states felt similarly about their loyalty to Britain. It is also worth noting that there was a multitude of rebellions in Africa and elsewhere during the war.
The Spring Offensive
The Russian Civil War freed up 500k German troops for the Western Front. Meanwhile, the sinking of the Lusitania was used as the official reason for the US' entry into the war, however such reports like the Zimmermann Telegramnote A telegram sent by the German foreign minister to try and sway Mexico into attacking the United States. History students may redeem this factoid for two (2) points extra credit on any WWI exam. Extra Special Bonus points for the Cuba Memorandum (German decision to attack American power in the Americas, signed in 1898) Manufacturer's coupon; no expiration date. also had a huge role and was yet another casus belli for the US' entry. The unofficial reasons were simple; the US would gain prestige and would honor their alliances while avoiding the bloodiest parts of the war, and that the US could gain huge influence by being present in the peace negotiations. This all nullified Wilson's supporter's reasons for reelecting him; "he kept us out of the war". American troops made haste to the front, even though the Germans had ordered unrestricted submarine warfare on everyone. However, despite having seen trench warfare first hand in the American Civil War, the American Expeditionary Force's doctrine called for full frontal assaults against entrenchments, which the French and British had already discarded as a valid tactic due to the cost in lives. Meanwhile, subsequent victories against the Ottomans resulted in the occupation of most of their territory, coupled with the Arab Revolt, and the freeing up of several new independent states. The Ottomans were all but defeated, and with the arrival of the Americans 1917 seemed like the beginning of the end for the Central Powers.
However, the Germans were hardly ready to throw in the towel. Using the forces they gained from the Russian Civil War, they started a poorly-organised series of attacks under the name 'Operation Michael' — better known as 'The Spring Offensive' — in a final winner-take-all gambit to... something, though the general impression is that it was an attempt to weaken The Entente before the US could begin to deploy forces rivaling the French and Commonwealth for size. The offensive was aimed at the British, considered the softer nut of Germany's two principal enemies, with the nominal objective of separating them from the French and throwing them into the sea. 'Nominal', because in practice this aim was a bit vague and wasn't planned-out or pursued with any real dedication or persistence.
The Germans seem to have assumed that the use of some new battlefield tactics would be enough to win the war for them. These built on those used at Verdun and Some and by Brusilov, and made use of small infiltration-and-assault units (later called Storm-troopers) to make tactical breakthroughs - the idea being that the minimal use of artillery would minimise the need to repair roads and railway-lines, theoretically making an operational breakthrough (after enough tactical breakthroughs) possible. However, German engineering and logistics hadn't been reformed since 1914 (and so were still relatively inefficient) and their capabilities had diminished due to the wartime loss of horses. While Entente logistics, on the other hand, were only marginally more efficient than they had been when the war started (thanks to some cosmetic reforms) their absolute capabilities had dramatically improved thanks to the continual war-time purchase of horses and even motor-vehicles from the outside world (and particularly the USA, which during the war had indisputably become the world's largest single economy).
The initial 'successes' of the new tactics (in making tactical breakthroughs) are at least partly due to the fact that the British forces were experiencing an organisational crisis at the time, with as few as half the troops in any given 'front-line' unit being available being for actual fightingnote Tthe rest being needed for full-time engineering+logistics duties. Engineers were nominally just 1/20th of the front-line combat troops, but in practice 1/3 of them had to perform engineering duties if the other 2/3 were to remain fed and protected by adequate field-fortifications. Then in 1917 the civilian government had the bright idea to 'solve' Britain's manpower crisis by decreasing the numbers of men in front-line combat units while increasing their armament (and thus ammunition-expenditure)... . But then the usual problems (and worse) manifested - weak logistics meant that the storm-troops weren't getting food or ammo or rest, whereas their more-numerous enemies had plenty of all three. The result was that the storm troopers quickly ran out of steam and began suffering staggering casualties that were completely irreplaceable.
This was not helped by the way that the Germans' commanders did their usual thing and abandoned the nominal aim of the offensive when their progress started to slow, moving instead to attack the French and try to advance on Paris. This was due in part to a hesitancy to take more casualties, as Germany was on the verge of falling apart from the sustained attrition of four years of two-fronted war. Unfortunately, this resulted, if anything, in more casualties later on when the Germans failed to make any kind of substantial headway. This culminated in the Second Battle of the Marne. The initial part of the battle was, as the previous parts of the offensive had been, a limited success for the Germans, who managed to cross the river itself and set up positions. However, they encountered heavy resistance, particularly from American units like the 3rd US Infantry Division, nicknamed forever after "The Rock of the Marne" for their steadfast resistance. More reinforcements, mostly American but some British, stalled the German advance before they could consolidate their gains on the other side of the river. Casualty-wise, the Entente suffered a few more but the Germans were weakening from attrition, and the Entente could now call on virtually limitless American troops. The end was near. Yet despite the setbacks and general failure of Operation Michael, it was still the closet the Germans would ever come since 1914 to ending the war on favorable terms.
The Entente, sensing victory was close, began what is called "The Hundred Days Offensive," a continent-wide series of offensives by the Entente intended to push the Germans out of France and finally end the war. The Germans were pushed back after Entente intelligence found weaknesses in their positions, and the Germans were routed back across the Marne. Every loss counted against the Germans: the Hundred Days offensive alone cost each side a million men, but while the Entente could call on American reserves to replace their non-combat troops and free up their own more experienced soldiers for fighting units, Germany's manpower was utterly exhausted. Furthermore, many German troops, demoralized by four years of war, the Spanish Flu and millions of Americans arriving at the front, surrendered outright. This was truly the beginning of the end of the war, and from here on out the Germans would never really have a chance at defeating the Entente forces and getting anything close to favorable peace terms.
Most of this was due to the German home front. The British had succeeded in winning the crucial — but often neglected in textbooks — "War at Sea" and were able to turn back the German navy and blockade their. German agriculture was highly inefficient, with many small farms being relied upon to churn out food. Thus, much of Germany's food supply was imported, and the blockade effectively ruined that. Furthermore, it limited Germany's logistical ability, such as the lack of horses mentioned above. They couldn't bring in any supplies, and in some ways the even worse effect was the fact that they couldn't export any supplies. Without being able to sell products abroad, the German economy tanked under the strain of war. The German economy was on the brink of collapse, with the Mark constantly changing in value often by the hour (resulting in workers going in to work and being paid less than what they should, as the currency value had changed so much during the day that their eventual pay was worth even less). This inflation made the Mark useful only as fuel for furnaces. Industrial output had dropped sharply, morale had collapsed, medical supplies were low and there were few new recruits to replace the staggering losses. Anti-War protests became frequent and many people were discontented with the Kaiser's rule due to the war. The Hundred Days Offensive marked the final nail in the coffin. The Entente were able to push the demoralized German troops back to Amiens, but as resistance grew they diverted attention elsewhere. The Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line. The German High Command realized the war was lost and even the Kaiser saw that it must come to an end. Moreover, Austria-Hungary's army had been defeated in Italy and the Balkans and effectively collapsed, and Bulgaria and the Ottomans had for all intents and purposes withdrawn from the war. All peace offers sent, however, were rejected. Further battles like Champagne and Cambrai pierced the Hindenburg Line. Bulgaria left the Central Powers and now the list of Germany's allies had basically shortened to Austria-Hungary. The German Navy mutinied when it caught wind of an offensive being ordered that would almost certainly end in disaster. With the collapse of the Balkan front, Germany's last supplies of food and oil dried up. The war came to an end and a revolution ousted the Kaiser and replaced him with a new government: the Weimar Republic. And at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in 1918, a ceasefire was called and the war was over. Four long, brutal, bloody years of a worldwide struggle came to an end, and the greatest war man had seen by that point was finally over.
Pushing 1918 into the winner's circle for the title of Worst Year Ever (*cough*1932*cough*1944-45*cough*) was an influenza pandemic. The Spanish Flu (which actually originated in Fort Riley, Kansas, USA) struck that fall, killing between fifty and a hundred million people (2.5-5% of the then global population) compared to the war's ten or fifteen million, but has largely been forgotten by history and fiction. The war actually helped its spread (troop transportation), and four years of malnutrition and stress probably hadn't strengthened anyone's immune system, but today it's thought that that flu strain killed by inciting a cytokine storm (basically, your immune system goes berserk and, if its strong enough, accidentally kills you). Certainly the 1918 flu was unusual in that it mostly killed healthy adults, as opposed to the more usual flu victims: the sick, the very young, and the very old. Also very unusual in that almost none of the stories or films set in the period even mention it—even contemporary fiction. Rilla of Ingleside, by L. M. Montgomery, chronicles the entire war without touching on it at all.
Four empires were toppled (Russian, German, Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman; indeed, it could be argued that in November 1918, there was not a single functional government between the Rhine and the Dnieper rivers!) and the winners took the opportunity in the Treaty of Versailles to redraw the map of Europe along what were supposed to be ethnic lines but in fact just stored up more problems for the future (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Danzig, to name the biggest). The treaty terms were really harsh on the Germans (including the Austrians, who voted to join Germany and were told to stuff it... until 1938, anyway) and the Hungarians (who lost two thirds of their country) storing up lots of resentment that would come back to haunt the Entente later - though some modern historians now believe they were actually not hard enough and served the worst of both worlds in angering Germany but not substantially weakening her. Additionally, it's been argued that - if the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk negotiated by the Germans and the new Bolshevik government in Russia was any indicator - whatever treaty the victorious Germans might have come up with could have been even harsher.
Russia became the first Communist country late in this war, although that was only because of the wartime starvation itself. Similarly, the Treaty of Versailles completely ignored the pleas from imperial colonies like French Indochina or disadvantaged countries like China to reform the European policies in said countries; this lead to anger and mistrust throughout the 20s and 30s that contributed to said countries later becoming Communist.
Interestingly, two of the most iconic German symbols of the war — the spiked "Pickelhaube" helmet and the bright red Fokker Triplane — were relatively short-lived. The Pickelhaube looked cool (sort of) but was useless for keeping the wearer's head safe so was quickly replaced by the end of 1915 by the Stahlhelm, "coal-scuttle" helmet, whose improved version became the symbol of the German forces in World War II. The Triplane was never that successful and quickly withdrawn after April 1917. The only red ones were flown by the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, and his younger brother Lothar — the iconic image simply stuck.
The war also ushered in modern espionage, to say nothing of modern spy fiction (although it had already had a leg up from Erskine Childer's The Riddle of the Sands, which was actually semi-predicting the war at the beginning of the 20th century).
Also, behind the oft-forgotten Turkish Front, the Young Turk government carried out a series of deportations and massacres against Anatolian Armenians, Pontic Greeks and Assyrians, killing over 1,000,000 people in what would come to be called the first modern genocide. The failure to properly bring it to justice afterwards likely made it the inspiration for Germany's Final Solution against its Jews in the next world war.
There were many future writers in the trenches: notably, J. R. R. Tolkien and A. A. Milne served in the British infantry, while Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney volunteered to serve as Red Cross ambulance drivers; on the other side, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein served in the Austrian artillery. One who did not survive his service was William Hope Hodgson, author of The Night Land, who was killed by a shell in 1918; the accomplished Black Comedy writer Saki was also killed, shot by a German sniper after yelling at another soldier to put out his cigarette (he was discovered because of his yell). The famous German painter and founding member of "The Blue Rider", Franz Marc, was killed by a grenade at Verdun. And sadly, there was at least one young, promising scientist in the trenches: the physicist Henry Moseley, who discovered the principle underlying atomic number, establishing the periodic law, was killed at Gallipoli, just as his career was getting off the ground. The French lost André Durkheim, a promising young linguist and the son and protégé of the notable sociologist Emile Durkheim. Sent to the Belgian front in late 1915, André Durkheim was declared missing in January, and declared dead in April of 1916. The elder Durkheim never quite recovered from the loss of his son, dying himself in 1917. The loss of many of his other protégés and friends in the trenches didn't exactly help. Fighting on the German side was another physicist, Karl Schwarzschild, who was the first to use Albert Einstein's new General Theory of Relativity to predict black holes. He died on the Russian front.
Milunka Savic joined the Serbian Army in place of her brother when he was called to arms during the Balkan War of 1913 (after cutting her long hair, of course) and was discovered to be a woman only after having been decorated for bravery and ascended to Corporal. She remained in the army for the whole of World War I, and to this day is still the most decorated woman in the history of warfare.
Margarete Trappe, a German colonist in Tanzania that scouted for Von Lettow's army.
Ecaterina Teodoroiu was a former Romanian scout girl when her country declared war on the Central Powers. She first served as a nurse, and when her brother was killed in battle, she joined the army as any other soldier. She was captured by the Germans, escaped by killing (at least) two guards, was wounded, decorated and finally killed by machine gun fire in the 1917 Battle of Marasesti while commanding 25 men as a sub-lieutenant.
Airborne Aircraft Carrier: These were actually invented during this war. It was intended for small planes to "piggyback" on larger ones in order to extend their range. More importantly, planes were used by airships and Zeppelins as a means to distract and defend against attacking aircraft, and even to deliver torpedoes.
Airships: World War One saw the most diverse uses of airships in combat. They were used as heavy bombers, reconnaissance craft, airborne aircraft carriers, convoy escorts, anti-submarine aircraft, and as experimental platforms.
Ace Pilot: The very origin of the trope and its name, and the chronological home of...
The Red Baron: Manfred von Richthofen, the best known flying ace in history. He was the highest scoring pilot of the war, with 80 kills, although his score was beaten by quite a few people in World War II. His reputation at the time and among both sides has turned him into something of an archetype for the Ace Pilot, however.
Actual Pacifist: Jean Jaurès, a leader of the SFIO,note Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière, French Section of the Workers' International the main French socialist party, tried even into the later days of July to keep France out of the war, persuading his party to maintain its party line that the war would be a bourgeois-capitalist distraction from the unity of the international workers' movement. The political calculus of the time meant that France would have difficulty participating in the war unless it had the support of the Socialists, who were the second-largest party in Parliament (the April-May 1914 election was a landslide victory for the Left). Tragically, he was eventually assassinated for his pacifist beliefs, which were widely unpopular and viewed as unpatriotic.
The name was actually already being used by, or just after, its end - the more forward-looking military historians, recognising that the war had left far too many scores unsettled for there not to be a rematch.
Ferdinand Foch: This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.
The First World War was sort-of used in 1914: one ambassador used it, but the capitalisation was 'the first World War'. The implication was not that there'd necessarily be a sequel, but that this war was a new sort of war, a World(-wide) War, if you will. Just plain World War saw more common usage (especially amongst the Germans).
Armored Coffins: Plane crews generally did not have parachutes. Or indeed armour. Some officers considered that the crew should not be allowed to leave the plane, as that would be cowardice. It was thought at the time that if a pilot had a parachute, he would jump from the plane when hit rather than trying to save the aircraft. However, it wasn't quite a universal lack - Hermann Goering was saved by a parachute as a matter of fact. Also, balloon observers and zeppelin crews on both sides had parachutes.
Definite Values Dissonance here, as since WW1 the attitude has been that the machine is expendable, and the pilot isn't. A major factor behind the loss of air superiority by both Germany and Japan in WW2 was their inability to replace pilot losses. Admittedly this is a simplification as there are entire books on the subject.
Artistic License - Economics: Pre-war Germany was at once the most avowedly socialist and pacistic and rabidly antisocialist and militaristic country on earth - and this coloured every aspect of its fiscal policynote The German middle classes broadly supported the largest Socialist Party on earth, which dominated the German parliament, and the upper classes were full of military men. They absolutely hated each other, and this translated into German fiscal policy: there was absolutely no question of raising military spending to match Russian spending. Why? Because increased spending would require increased taxation... and The Socialist Party would only accept an income tax. A progressive income tax, whereby the rich would pay more than the poor. The upper class and military therefore continued to insist that military spending was absolutely fine and no, they didn't need more money thank you (even as they collectively shat their pants at the prospect of facing a modernised Russian military in c.1919) This carried over into the war itself, in which the government absolutely refused to implement any new taxes whatsoever even as its expenditure quadrupled. They had to make up the colossal deficit by borrowing and printing money. By 1918 this left the Germans with a near-useless currency, the life-savings of a retired person being barely enough to buy a table. People were using marks as fuel for their fires or wallpaper because there was nothing else they could do with them. While they could have just replaced the old currency with a new one, this wouldn't have solved the fundamental problem of the government being over-reliant on printing money.
Awesome, but Impractical: Poison gas, while extremely devastating to anyone without a gas mask, often was blown back to the side that fired it when the wind changed.
Badass Beard: The French soldiers' nickname was "les Poilus" (the hairy ones). Guess why.
Badass Bookworm: Prince Albert of Belgium was not only courageous and steadfast in the face of the overwhelming German attack on his homeland, he was also an avid reader, apparently reading an average of three books per day on whatever the hell interested him.
Beam Me Up, Scotty!: The phrase "lions led by donkeys," commonly used to described the British Army in WWI, is popularly attributed to German General Falkenhayen. In fact the quote, at least in this context, appears to have been invented by historian Alan Clark, MP for his 1961 book The Donkeys. Similar quotes predate WWI, however, in describing the British in the Crimean War and French troops in the Franco-Prussian War.
BFG: Big Bertha is the most famous example of the howitzer cannons employed by both sides.
Black Dude Dies First: As many as a million of the forced-labourers conscripted by the British throughout Africa died. This was because almost all of them came from isolated rural villages and so had little immunity to the bountiful cornucopia of diseases they were exposed to as part of a multi-national army, but also because they were worked too hard and were given too little food and medical care. However, African labourers in France seem to have had it a little better and only a few were trusted enough to serve with the French Army in the firing line (and the British for their part used Indian labourers behind their lines).
Fascinatingly the US, whose leader had probably the most contemptuous opinion of black people among the entire Entente—Woodrow Wilsonordered segregation in most federal officesnote Other than the military, most federal offices had been integrated since the 1860s when there was no real constituency for doing so other than his post-Civil-War-Virginian personal racism—tended to keep African American troops in support roles, thus giving them higher survival rates than their white comrades.
Although it's a common trope in France, it's partially averted. Everyone on the front had serious casualty rates, and colonial troops were a small minority of engaged infantry.
Modern plastic surgery owes its beginnings to this. The results were primitive◊ by today's standards, but they were far better than nothing. In particular, big advancements were made in prosthetic eyes.
Book Ends: The treaty that ended the GermanEmpire and made it pay 132 billion Reichsmarks in reparations was signed in Versailles, the same place where the German Empire was unified and proclaimed after the Franco-Prussian War.
Break the Badass: Lanrezac, commander of the French left wing, was by all modern accounts a competent commander, and he was one of the few French commanders to predict that the Germans would move their biggest force through Belgium. Unfortunately, Joffre's inability to take him seriously led him to become bitter and angry, going on multiple tirades against the general staff which eventually got him booted from command.
Call Back: "Lafayette, we are here!" ("Lafayette, nous voici!"). Col. Charles Staunton of the American Expeditionary Force, July 4, 1917, at the grave of the Marquis de La Fayette, recalling a time when France helped America out. (This quote is often incorrectly attributed to the commander of the AEF, Gen. John Pershing.)
Contrived Coincidence: How the war began. A group of six conspirators were lined along the motorcade, each with instructions to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The first lost his nerve, but soon after a conspirator named Nedeljko Čabrinović threw a bomb at the Archduke's motorcade. The bomb bounced off the car, and went off under a car behind it. The motorcade sped off after the explosion, past the other conspirators, including one named Gavrilo Princip, who felt he had missed his chance. Princip then decided to go get something to eat. When he came out of the cafe, he saw the Archduke's car right in front of him, trying to back up and turn around after a wrong turn. Princip took his chance and shot the Archduke. Princip and his conspirators were arrested, implicated several officers of the Serbian military, leading to the July Crisis, which ultimately lead to war between Austria and Serbia, and soon after, a World War.
Cool Airship: This was the first war to employ Zeppelins, and saw their most pronounced role. Problem was, they often had to fly so high, above the clouds, that their bombs were nearly impossible to aim, and ended up doing more to scare civilians and divert resources than actually damage the enemy infrastructure. That, and they were filled with hydrogen gas, so you can guess how well that worked.
Cool Plane: A number of them, this being the first major use of aircraft in warfare—unless you count observation balloons, which date back to the Napoleonic Wars.
Cool Ship: In addition to the massive battleships and battlecruisers that were at their prime in this war, this war also featured the first major use of submarine warfare, and the first use of dedicated aircraft carriers in combat. Other less famous designs used in this war included wooden-hulled gunboats designed to cross minefields (the magnetically triggered mines wouldn't be set off by the wooden hulls) to attack German U-Boats that were forced to go the long way around.
Cowardly Lion: The BEF under John French before the Marne, while generally successful and in a position to turn the tide of the war toward the Entente, was in a constant state of retreat due to French's lack of confidence in his own troops and the fear that contributing to the Entente offensive would mean disaster for Britain.
Crowning Moment Of Awesome: When the Germans' right wing went through Belgium with 400k troops, they were ordered to bypass all resistance so they could occupy as much of the country as possible before passing on into France, so that the war could be fought anywhere that wasn't Germany. They found King Albert I in personal command of a Belgian Army of 50k, ready to hold them off for a crucial three months - forcing them to tie down an equal number of troops to besiege them in their fortresses and hold them back. This, though all too often forgotten, was probably the single most important reason the Germans didn't get several dozen kilometres further into French territory before the inevitable Anglo-French counter-offensive. The icing on the cake? When the Germans actually sent King Albert the ultimatum demanding that his men step aside and let the German armies pass, he responded simply by saying; "I rule a nation, not a road!".
Another came in 1918 for the Italians: in that year the tide turned against the Central Powers, with Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire forced to sue for peace when the Entente broke through the Macedonian Front and the Franco-Commonwealth forces in Mesopotamia and Palestine linked up and cracked into Anatolia respectively, but Austria-Hungary and Germany could still offer a stiff fight and extort concessions during the peace talks... when the Italians literally destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Army as organization in the battle of Vittorio Veneto, starting the chain reaction that dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire and opening the way for the Royal Italian Army to march not just on Berlin (a condition the Italians required for not simply continuing the advance and wipe out Austria itself), as the German Army was tied up in France against the rest of the Entente. According to German general Ludendorff, the massive Oh Crap caused by the Austro-Hungarian collapse caused Germany to sue for peace instead of continuing the war during the winter to get a less harsh peace.
For the Germans, the capture of Fort Douaumont during the Battle of Verdun. The fort was a key part of France's defensive line, yet inexplicably left undermanned. In February 1916, a single company (i.e. 100 men!) of German sappers captured the fort without firing a shot. By contrast, the French lost nearly 100,000 men as dead and (far more often) wounded recapturing it the following October.
Less a case of CMOA for the Germans than an extreme case of Idiot Ball on the part of the French. Not only was the fort extremely undermanned, it had been disarmed - all but two guns had been removed. You don't need to be noticeably Bad Ass to capture a fort which has no men and no weapons, but you do need to be noticeably dumbass to take the weapons out of your own fort.
As opposed to Douaumont, the defense of the fort of Vaux was very much this for the French. After surrendering the fort, the survivors were given military honours by the Germans taking over and the Kronprinz gave a sword to commander Raynal. The pigeon (Vaillant) sent to Verdun to give word of the rendition arrived there despite being gazed and received a Croix de guerre.
In France, WWI as a whole is considered one (although newer generations came to go by the "butchered generation" side of things).
Crowning Moment Of Funny: General Plumer before the Battle of Messines (1917), in which the Commonwealth plan was to detonate 450 tons of TNT underneath the German trenches prior to an attack: "Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography."
Chief of Staff William Robertson's terse dismissal of General Horace Dorien-Smith: "'Orace, you're for 'ome!"
In 1914, in an attempt to check the German advance, General Gallieni ordered that troops be rushed to the front via taxi cab. When complimented on his brilliant idea, Gallieni responded, "Eh bien, voila au moins qui n'est pas banal !" ("Well, here at least is something out of the ordinary!")
Crying Wolf: A lot of people did not take reports of German rearmament or the World War II Holocaust seriously because the last generation was jaded from exaggerated propaganda about the brutality of the enemy in this war.
The Holocaust started well after World War II began. Also, in addition to a jaded populace, the British government knew that war with Germany would be, at best, a Pyrrhic Victory (They did lose their superpower status in the end of World War II, so their fears were justified).
Curb-Stomp Battle: Despite the war's generally static nature there were a surprising number of dramatic offensive successes. On the Entente side, the Brusilov Offensive (Russia vs Austria-Hungary), Megiddo (Palestinian Front), Vittorio Veneto (Italy) and Meuse-Argonne (France vs Germany) resulted in decisive breakthroughs. The Central Powers could claim Tannenberg, their 1915 offensives into Galicia, Austria's steamrolling of Serbia, the Austro-German defeat of Italy at Caporetto and the early stages of Germany's 1918 Spring Offensive.
Of course, more frequently the one-sided battles favored the defensive. A notable example occurred at Loos in September 1915. On the initial day of fighting, the British lost over 18,000 men while the Germans lost none.
Despair Event Horizon: The American intervention and the subsequent failed German offensive in the Winter finally convinced the Germans that the war was lost.
Didn't See That Coming: The Germans were caught by surprise by the French using tear gas on their soldiers, and the Entente were even more surprised when the Germans deployed poison gas. Later, tanks were an absolute and terrifying surprise.
The MAS (short for Motoscafo Armato Silurante), the torpedo boats of the Royal Italian Navy, were essentially speedboats with a torpedo strapped on either side, and discounted as nothing more than a nuisance. The Austro-Hungarian Navy literally failed to see two of them having a chance encounter with their flagship, sink it and run away, and thought the Szent Istvan had been sank by submarines until the Italian propaganda started boasting.
Divided We Fall: The fate of the Russians at Tannenberg. Poor communication between the Russian First Army commanded by Rennenkampf and the Second Army commanded by Samsonov (and by some accounts, a mutual dislike between the two generals) allowed the Germans to completely annihilate the Second Army without the First Army even knowing of an attack until far too late.
Double Consciousness: Lichnowsky, the German diplomat to England, was noted for his Anglophilia. When the conflict broke out it was an intensely personal one, as he was made to choose between the country of his heart and the country of his birth.
Earth Is a Battlefield: Although it's mostly known for fighting in France, Belgium and Russia, there were battles all over the place. Technically, as they were Empires, the governments involved covered the entire earth, but the fighting was heavily concentrated on small fronts.
The Empire: Several of them, and some of those empires ceased to exist because of this war. Which leads to...
End of an Age: By the time the war was over the Russian, German, Ottoman, and Austo-Hungarian Empires had collapsed or been picked apart, their colonies and territories carved up by the victors or being given - or declaring - independence. Britain, France, and Italy were the only Imperial European Great Powers still standing, and they soon found local elites in their more developed colonies clamouring for more government accountability and responsibility, and eventually even semi-autonomy. The time when the world was ruled by a handful of ancient monarchies came to an end, to be replaced by international cooperation among a diverse collection of independent republics - with justice, freedom and some measure of equality for all. At least, that's what the revolutionaries hoped would happen. Things didn't exactly pan out that way.
In a cultural sense, World War I was the final nail on the coffin of the nineteenth century's optimism about scientific and technological progress. Literary and artistic movements following the war tended to embrace anxiety and disorder, the concept of revolutionary change, and the idea that human nature was best realized not through reason but through rediscovering the primal self.
In terms of U.S. history, World War I marks the end of a period in which European affairs were considered too distant to care about. That policy had started with the Founding Fathers themselves in response to Europe descending into the French Revolutionary Wars. It was subsequently maintained through the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, and so forth. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the U.S. had developed a long-standing policy of neutrality in all European conflicts. For better or worse, this forever came to an end on April 2, 1917 when Woodrow Wilson asked for a declaration of war against Germany.
Some have argued that World War I marks the end of Christendom, i.e. the end of the western world being defined by the Christian religion. There was a similar transition in the Middle East, where secular Arab nationalism replaced Islam as the driving force of society.... well, for a few decades, at least.
Famous Ancestor: The initial Chief of German General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger's Uncle was... Well, Helmuth von Moltke the Older, a legendary commander in his time who is often credited with revolutionizing modern tactics.
Feuding Families: Since virtually all the European monarchies were more or less related in 1914, the whole war was technically this. Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas II, second cousins, called one another "Willy" and "Nicky" before things went too far downhill for diplomacy. Both were first cousins of King George V, then current monarch of England, as was Nicholas' wife Alexandra, whose grandmother was Queen Victoria.
To drive this home, this picture◊ shows Queen Victoria at Coburg in 1894 with some of her extended family. In that picture you have two future British Kings, as well as the last Kaiser (of Germany) and the last Czarina (of Russia), and those are just children and grandchildren.
"War will come over some damn thing in the Balkans." - Germany's Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, about two decades before the war.
"The crash will come twenty years after I am gone." - Bismarck, 18 years before the end of the German Empire.
"The lights are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." - Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Minister, as the war began.
"This is no peace, it is an armistice for twenty years." - French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, on the Treaty of Versailles.
Continuing on the Foch quote; US general Pershing hated the idea of an Armistice, because he believed that unless they obtained an unconditional surrender the German people would come to believe that they were defeated for reasons other than military ones. He was right.
A cartoon from the time of the Versailles treaty shows George "The Tiger" Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France at the time, saying to his fellow leaders: "Curious! I seem to hear a child crying!" Said child is unseen in a corner weeping over a torn copy of the treaty. Virtually any boy born in England or France in 1918-1919 would have been conscripted in 1939.
After the success of the Tondern raid, the Royal Navy considered plans for a flotilla of aircraft carriers to launch a massed raid of over a hundred torpedo-carrying planes to attack the German High Seas Fleet. The war ended before the resources could be brought together, but the strategy would see use in the 1940s.
Forever War: Doubtless many felt this way during the conflict, but a school of thought exists that, since every major conflict that followed it was tied to it in some way, from Red October to World War II to the Cold War and the War On Terror, we've basically been fighting the same war since then.
From Bad to Worse: After the war ended, the world was devastated by the Spanish Flu — spread by the returning soldiers who had more or less created ideal pandemic conditions by staying in wet trenches with corpses everywhere — which killed up to 100 million people (by comparison, four years of War killed perhaps 16 million people)
Gambit Pileup: The entire war was a textbook example of this; in some cases the gears had been turning since the seventeenth century.
Go Karting with Bowser: On Christmas, 1914, forces in certain areas took a break from the war to go into No Man's Land and play soccer/football with each other and generally fraternize with the enemy. It was not universal, and ended up being stopped by the higher ups on both sides, but stands out as a bit of heartwarmingness in one of the bleakest periods of the Twentieth Century.
Good Republic, Evil Empire: Subverted. While most of the major powers involved were monarchies (with the French Republic being a notable exception), the Entente came across as relatively more democratic ( compared to the Central Powers in general. By the time America entered the war, this had more or less turned into a battle between a bright new world of democracy and the old order.
The subversion gets even more interesting. The Entente had the two Franco-British Great Powers which were of course democracies, later joined by the United States (a prototypical modern democratic republic), and counted as allies Italy (a limited-plurality constitutional monarchy) and a number of questionably-democratic smaller states (e.g. Greece). However, Tsarist Russia, one of the original core three Entente Powers, was probably the single most autocratic regime involved in the war. In contrast, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire had developing constitutional monarchies, with the actual monarch having some power but not nearly as much as the Tsar. Yes, you heard us right: Germany's Reichstag was well-established and had substantive power (all laws required its assent at least in theory); Austria-Hungary's parliamentary order was shaky despite being about as old as the German, but elected politicians could easily shout the Emperor down if they ever stopped shouting at (and fighting) each other (which of course they hardly ever did); and the Ottoman Empire's Parliamentary regime was new, but the more-or-less elected government (it was led by the "Young Turks", who weren't above a bit of vote-rigging to get their way) ran everything and the Sultan couldn't really be bothered to exercise his theoretical powers. Russia technically had its State Duma, but it had laughable influence and even volunteered to dissolve itself when war broke out in 1914, handing whatever paltry authority it had to the Tsar. In other words: the Entente included the most extreme governments of democratic/autocratic axis, with the Central Powers being in the middle. This ironically changed as the war forced the Tsar to make numerous concessions before the autocratic regime fell apart and the US entered the war, while the Central Powers gradually saw their governments taken over by a defacto military dictatorship that was ideologically tied to the idea of absolute monarchy.
For Britain, at least, one of their casus belli involved Germany invading neutral Belgium and standing up for "the rights of small nations." Yet in late 1915, the Entente had no qualms in dispatching troops to then-neutral Greece in order to open a new front against Austria.
Admittedly, unlike Belgium, Greece had permitted limited movement of Entente troops inside their borders, and was even then seriously considering joining the Entente.note The elected government of Eleftherios Venizelos was all for it; the only reason Greece didn't join sooner was that the King—who still held some power—was opposed to war for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact he was married to the Kaiser's sister. (Your cousin you can afford to piss off...but your wife?) They even offered up two divisions for the assault at Gallipoli, but Russian intervention saw that come to naught.
Harsher in Hindsight: Immediately after the war ended, many members of the intelligensia were so disgusted by the scale of death and destruction that they declared that they had finally seen the worst humanity was capable of. Theyweredeadly wrong.
Historical Hero Upgrade: Very rare in today's media, but in the immediate aftermath Hindenburg (who didn't do much at the end of the war) and Ludendorff (who lost) both made out that they were True German Heroes who had been betrayed by defeatists at home.
Woodrow Wilson, the President of the US and overseer of the Treaty of Versailles, was a fairly good-hearted man who genuinely tried to avert another such conflict and seriously attempted to make things better for countries... provided their populations were white. His racism is generally glossed over.
Sir Douglas Haig, in one of his wiser moments, realised that the only way it could end well was if the same Imperial Germany which had started the war signed the armistice to end it; this proved not to be the case, and the job (and the blame) fell on the civilians.
Hey, It's That Guy!: Many people who later became famous in a variety of fields were anonymous soldiers in World War One - whether it be political leaders like Adolf Hitler or writers like J. R. R. Tolkien and Ernest Hemingway. A common, poignant Alternate History speculation centres around considering, given how many gifted people came out of the trenches, how many more would that generation have produced if so many of their comrades hadn't died there. It may also work the other way, given how so many of these notables were spurred onto their future actions in one way or another by their experiences in the trenches and how they may have lacked similar impetus without the war.
By extension, Germany as a whole, and to a lesser extent Austria and Russia, seem to get this treatment. For example, referring to Germany's policy of creating dependent nations from the peoples of what had been the Russian empire as "Lebensraum".
The Austrians definitely got this treatment by the end of the War, seeing how the Empire was seen as having started it off in the first place. This could partially explain its fate in the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon.
The Japanese got hit with this as well, mostly thanks to American views on the subject, and the perception at the time by some Royal Navy Officers, most notably Admiral John Jellicoe, the commander of the British Grand Fleet, that the Japanese weren't contributing that much to the war effort, despite heavy involvement in secondary theaters (Tsingtao, anyone?) and in tasks like escorting troopships and convoys headed for Europe. The whole bit about just being in it for the German Pacific colonies is a pretty hefty exaggeration, but not entirely a fabrication. They did also end up with pretty hefty rewards for relatively limited pain (about 415 dead and 907 wounded.)
The Royal Navy complaints are largely due to the Japanese refusal to let them effectively borrow the four Japanese Kongo-class battlecruisers. Had the Japanese sent the Kongo's to Europe as the British wanted the end result would have been a logistical nightmare for everyone because the Kongo's, despite being designed by the British (one was even built in the UK), had a main battery which required ammunition the Royal Navy didn't use. For most of the war the Japanese Kongo's were the most powerful warships in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and pretty much discouraged anyone from messing with British troopships and convoys when a Kongo-class battlecruiser was nearby. For most of WWI the Royal Navy didn't have to worry about the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, or (to a lesser extent) the South Atlantic because the Japanese Navy took on many of Royal Navy's traditional responsibilities.
While most leaders in history have at least some flaws, Woodrow Wilson's critics seem absolutely devoted to concentrate only on them.
Hollywood Tactics: Heavily exaggerated by, ironically enough, Hollywood, but some pretty stupid things were done.
It is hardly true that the American Civil War was the most recent or relevant war by WWI. Later and more relevant military experience came from the Franco-Prussian War (1870), the British during the Boer War (1899-1902), and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). The last two mentioned wars involved much of the same technology that lead to the stalemate in the Great War—barbed wire and smokeless powder weapons. The first made defenses notoriously fiddly for infantry to breach, while the second (combined with the proliferation of machine guns) rendered infantry useless without close-coordination with artillery forces. Smokeless powder weapons did not betray the position of a defender, and it deprived the battlefield of white smoke (created by black powder) that could offer cover for attacks. In the Boer War, the British found that their forces could be pinned down by very small numbers of Boers armed with modern rifles, and that shock attacks were essentially useless (see especially the early days of the war). By the end of the war, the British were using barbed wire to parcel in the remaining Boers, denying mobility. The Russo-Japanese war involved several engagements that closely resembled WWI-style trench warfare, especially the Battle of Mukden and the Siege of Port Arthur. Both sides were well entrenched and used barbed wire, machine guns and trenches - the stalemates being broken only by the careful use of artillery to help the infantry out. The minor gains and approx. 165,000 casualties were certainly similar to a WWI battle. Both wars (and the American Civil War) were well observed by the major powers of WWI, but they did not foresee the possibility of a prolonged war. It took until circa 1917, however, for them to figure out how to fight and finish one.
There's another particular observation made by the major powers in the Russo-Japanese War: namely Japan's willingness to pursue victory at whatever costs. While none of the successes on the Japanese side owed anything to all-out frontal assaults (which led to them being abandoned after the first few dozen such ineffective attacks), it was easy for foreign observers to confuse this tactical blunder with their firm grasp of the operational initiative. Balkan observers noted very closely however the "martial spirit" of the Japanese soldiery which enabled them to make all those initial frontal assaults without their troops fleeing (death-penalty for desertion aside) - Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, and Bulgaria were all very highly militarised and jingoistic states that couldn't afford much cutting-edge weaponry relative to The Ottoman Empire. They went on to form extremely well-motivated military forces that performed all out of proportion to their size in the 1912-13 Balkan Wars against The Ottomans and (when they'd won and starting squabbling over the spoils) each other. When in 1915 the Great Powers of Europe had exhausted their pre-war ammunition supplies and were embarrassingly short on weapons for their giant conscript-armies, they briefly became adherents of the Japanese/Balkan way of war until their industries caught up to wartime demands and managed to properly equip and arm and supply and feed their troops (in 1916).
The 1870 Franco-Prussian War was the main reason for France to declare war against Germany in 1914. Some of the tactics (and clothing, with red "shoot-me" pants) were still in use in the French army more than forty years later, much to disastrous effects, which led to trench warfare and blue outfits.
Home by Christmas: There's no evidence to suggest that anyone in high military circles seriously thought the war would be over within just a couple of years. But the civilian governments and the propaganda they put out were another matter; belief in a short war was extremely common everywhere except Russia and many soldiers on their way to the front were cheerfully saluted and joined by the citizens for a few miles. Europe hadn't seen a War of Attrition since 'The Great War' against Napoleon.
Hope Springs Eternal: After the battle of the frontiers, it seemed like the Germans were unstoppable. They were pushing back the French forces along almost the entire front, reports of atrocities committed by their army were streaming in from Belgium, and the general staff were almost incapable of agreeing on any way to stop them. It seemed to many to be the darkest hour of the war. However, slowly, and sometimes without their knowing it, the Entente forces were moving into place for the legendary First Battle of the Marne, where the French managed pull together and push the Germans back away from Paris.
"My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking." - French Marshall Ferdinand Foch during the Battle of the Marne
Hot-Blooded: Essentially the entire French strategy of élan. To quote Ferdinand Foch, whose military theory was immensely influential on overall French strategy,
"The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire."
Idiot Plot: The Idiot Ball gets passed back and forth between everyone. France and Britain going to war with Germany, which produced 90% of their high explosives, without the ready ability to manufacture elsewhere. The Belgians claiming their forts were still holding out weeks after the Germans had captured them, the Entente believing that Victorian tactics could work and finally the Germans for trying to get Mexico to invade the US and alienating most of the world.
The Cynic: Clemenceau who's main purpose at Versailles was to cripple Germany so much that it wouldn't be able to strike back at France, as he knew it would.
The Optimist: Wilson, an idealistic President who's main purpose at Versailles was to push his plans for a League of Nations.
The Realist: Lloyd George, who tried acted as a moderating force between the above two.
The Apathetic: Orlando, who's was the head of Italy, a Wild Card country and who's only real interests at Versailles was Territorial expansion at Austria's expense.
Fridge Logic was introduced by the Mexican General Staff, which was forwarded the Zimmerman Note for analysis by President Carranza. They concluded that Germany was trying to incite Mexico to attack the United States with no risk or sacrifice to Germany. Assurances of German financial support were meaningless, as the only country capable of selling Mexico enough arms to defeat the United States was the United States itself! And Germany's own wartime demands (to say nothing of the British blockade) ensured that the Germans could not provide Mexico with additional troops, weapons, or technical support. The Mexican army also concluded that the occupation would not be worth the trouble even if Mexico did manage to win, and that provoking the United States would alienate the rest of Latin America (or possibly bring them into the war with the Entente). The note also proposed that Mexico broker an alliance between Germany and Japan, ignoring that 1) Japan was a longstanding ally of the British and had entered the war to gain control over Germany's Pacific colonies and the German treaty port in Tsingtao, China and 2)the diplomatic relationship between Japan and Mexico at this point in history was all but nonexistent. Carranza, subsequently, told the Germans what they could do with their note. For extra bonus idiot points, the Zimmerman Note was transmitted via the U.S. embassy in Berlin and a U.S.-owned and operated telegraph cable from Denmark, all but ensuring that the U.S. would join the Entente.
Germany grabbed the Idiot Ball hard with the Zimmerman Note. When it was sent Mexico was knee-deep in a Civil War that, due to cross-border raids by Mexican Revolutionaries, had resulted in the US Army launching the Pancho Villa Expedition into Mexico in 1916. The Mexican government, with its own problems, mostly let the US Army do their thing.
The entire flight of the German ships Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean at the start of the war can only be described as a farce on the part of the British. Despite an overwhelming advantage in numbers, Admiral Milne could not properly capitalize on any of the developments in the Mediterranean because of his orders to keep some French transports safe with his best cruisers and find and destroy Goeben with older ships and keep Goeben from escaping into the Atlantic and not take heavy losses and respect the neutrality of countries that Goeben used to refill on coal. Combining these impossibly contradictory orders with terse and vague updated orders via telegraph from Churchill back in Britian and it becomes apparent why Milne can only put on a display that should have "Yakety Sax" in the background.
Nothing beats the Italian General Staff, though. When somebody sticks to the same Napoleonic Era-war plan even after their army has been beaten attempting to cross that one river for the 11th time, you have to wonder what the hell were they smoking.
Less the Italian General Staff (who were - all things considered - about as competent as anybody else and probably the equals or superiors of their Austro-Hungarian opponents) and more Luigi Cadorna, who came within a few steps of turning Italy into a military dictatorship under his command and who practically ran the war for the first two years of Italy's involvement. How bad was he? To this day the term "cadorna" is still used as slang for something crappy BY THE ITALIANS. Unsurprisingly, the front turned around almost immediately when he was finally removed from power and replaced with Diaz in spite of him inheriting the exact situation Cadorna had had with the additional negative effect of the enemy's smashing victory and Caporetto a month or so earlier.
Also the way the way war broke out because of the various war plans. If Russia thought there would be any trouble with Austria they would mobilize against Austria and Germany, and if Germany thought Russia was mobilizing they would immediately invade France and Belgium. Guess what happened.
Immediate Sequel: Everyone remembers the big sequel twenty years later, but plenty of spin-off wars started as soon as the ink was dry on Versailles and lasted well into the early '20s- the Irish War of Independence, the Turkish War of Independence, the Russian Civil War, and the Polish-Soviet War, just to name a few.
Technically speaking, the war itself was an immediate sequel to the Balkan Wars, which had concluded in 1913.
Improvised Weapon: Early on in the war, the British were able to defeat the Germans using massed rifle fire. However, as trench warfare developed, much of the fighting occurred in close quarters when raiding trenches, for which the bolt action rifles, with bayonets fixed, were utterly impractical. Soldiers took to using shovels, knives, brass knuckles, clubs and maces as mêlée weapons. As the British had discontinued the use of grenades several decades earlier, soldiers had to improvise those as well until the Mills Bomb was issued.
I Reject Your Reality: A fair chunk of Germany went through a society-wide bout of denial following the war, refusing to believe that Germany's invincible army was defeated on the battlefield (even against overwhelming odds) and blaming the defeat on a grab-bag of boogeymen before settling on Jews and leftists. This was actively encouraged by the German General Staff and Ludendorff, likely because they didn't want anyone looking for scapegoats in their direction.
If this is in reference to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, then it should be pointed out that Franz Joseph didn't particularly like him. The declaration of war against Serbia was to take a hardline against violent nationalism, not revenge.
Jerkass Has a Point: Italian first commander in chief Luigi Cadorna. His harsh discipline, relentless attacks against Austro-Hungarian trenches, near success at installing a military dictatorship and insistence on Napoleonic tactics earned him the hatred of the entire Entente - especially Italians- in general and his own soldiers in particular (as pointed out above, "Cadorna" used to be Italian slang for 'shitty'). On the other hand, his relentless attacks had brought the Austro-Hungarian army on the verge of collapse, a lack of machine guns (both fixed and portable by troops during assaults) and artillery seemingly made those Napoleonic tactics the Italians could do, that dictatorship was his way to fight the incompetent bureaucrats that had sabotaged his and his predecessors' attempts at adequately equipping the Italian Army, and by the time he was finally sacked Italy had an adequate number of decent machine guns and the largest artillery park of the war.
Laser-Guided Karma: Of a particularly Pyrric kind, perhaps, but Tsar Nicholas II, arguably the one person most responsible for the war's beginning, would not live to see its end, as the trauma and horror it inflicted on his country would ultimately destroy him. That was doubtless cold comfort to his innocent children, who were shot against the wall with him, to say nothing of the millions of his people who would suffer and die after them.
Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old assassin who, largely by luck, killed the Archduke Ferdinand and set in motion the events that would lead to the war, also died before it ended. He contracted skeletal tuberculosis in prison and had to have his arm amputated before his rapid death.
Last of His Kind: All of the last surviving veterans of the war have died in the past 15 years. As of 2011, nobody who saw active combat remains (the last, Claude Choules (British-born Australian, served in the RN and RAN) died May 5th, 2011). The last known survivor was Florence Green (British, last female veteran, died 7 Feb 2012). The last Canadian, Polish, Ukrainian and Austro-Hungarian veterans died only recently, only one to four years ago. Also, the last American veteran, Frank Buckles, died February 27th, 2011.
Memetic Badass: Pvt.- later Sgt.- Alvin York, who started out as a religious pacifist…. with a prodigal skill in firearms. And who decided to react to a German attack by shooting a few dozen of them dead and then taking over a hundred others prisoner. The vast cloud of prisoners being marched back by so few men led the commanders to initially think it was a German counterattack.
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of German forces in East Africa, intentionally built up a crazy reputation among both his enemies and his own troops though such acts as personally reconnoitering a battlefield on his bicycle. When he lost his glass eye and one of his Askaris (African troops) found it, returned it, and asked why he had dropped it, he replied "I left it there, to make sure that you would do your duty." By the end of the campaign, his enemies believed he was carrying his men on his back and going barefoot to conserve boots. After the war, he managed to get England to pay the retirement funds of his African troops. Let me repeat that: he managed to get England to pay for the retirement of the people who had shot at their soldiers.
He was also a Father to His Men, insisting that his black troops be treated the same as his white troops. When Lettow-Vorbeck returned to east Africa in 1953, his surviving askaris assembled and serenaded him with their marching song.
"I understand that von Lettow told Hitler to go fuck himself."
"That's right, but I don't think he put it that politely."
Also, Canadian troops are the origin of the term Stormtrooper. The German forces called them that because whenever you saw Canadians in the line, you knew there was going to be an attack in the morning. It eventually reached the point where the command could draw German troops away from an area by supplying them with misinformation on the locations of Canadian units. There was also a nasty rumour that Canadians were immune to gas attacks and the cold. Only the latter is true.
T.E. Lawrence probably qualifies as this, at least among his Arab followers (and later Entente commanders). What his Turkish opponents thought of Lawrence remains a matter of dispute.
Mis-blamed: The Spanish Flu actually originated in Kansas. Since Spain was the only neutral country around, the Spanish press was the only one that gave more importance to the disease than to the war, and people came to believe it had originated in Spain.
Modern Major General: Far too many officers on every side tried to use nineteenth century tactics against twentieth century weapons for the first few years of the war. It was not a success.
The worst of the lot is the Italian general Attilio Zincone. In september 1917 he was given the task to launch a sudden offensive against the Austro-Hungarians, moving against Trento passing from a sector left nearly unguarded in preparation for the Caporetto offensive and helped by traitorous Austian officers who drugged their own troops, sabotaged defensive installations and gave very accurate data about the grounds and Austrian artillery, including the scarcity of ammunition. For the task he had, in addition to all the troops in the area, two well-led divisions, enough trucks to move an entire division in one go, self-propelled artillery, armoured cars and six battalions of bike-mounted Bersaglieri (assault infantry). Zincone lost, screwing up the deployment and retreating as soon as the panicked Austro-Hungarian artillery fired some shot. For miserably wasting the chance to reach one of the war aims, throw the Austro-Hungarians into disarray and (possibly) even threaten Vienna itself with little trouble, Zincone and his immediate superior (who placed him in command passing over more capable and experienced generals) were sacked, and only avoided being placed first on the list of idiotic generals of all time because the entire battle was too embarrassing to remember for the Italians and the Austro-Hungarians not realizing what the hell had just happened.
Mordor: What the most-frequented frontlines looked like after years and years of bombardment and endless battles, notably on the Western Front. The battlefield near Paschendale looked particularly dreary in 1917 - a hellish, completely blasted-to-bits muddy wasteland.
Tolkien even hinted, years later, that the front lines in Belgium and France (where he served as an infantry officer) gave him a lot of inspiration for Mordor. So, oddly, they sort of count as a Trope Codifier.
In particular, the Dead Marshes crossed by Frodo, Sam and Gollum in The Two Towers were directly inspired by seeing the corpses of his buddies lying eyes upturned in rain-flooded bomb craters.
The details of how his experience affected his writing are given in John Garth's book Tolkien and the Great War, if you're interested.
More Dakka: Probably set a record for extreme concentrations of firepower. As just one example, the Battle of the Somme saw the British fire 12,000 tons of artillery ordnance at the German lines. The Germans, largely sheltered in excellently-engineered bunkers, emerged to intercept the following infantry attack - and inflict 60,000 British casualties in one day with machine guns. Nineteen thousand people were shot to death in one day and that was just the start of the battle; it went on for five months and ultimately caused well over one million casualties.
Don't forget the Spring Offensive in 1918. Over a period of five hours, the Germans fired over 1,100,000 shells before the attack. That's an average of over 60 shells per second, for five hours.
A detachment of the British Machine Gun Corps with 12 Vickers machine guns worked their way through a million rounds in 12 hours at High Wood.
The mines at the Messines ridge were packed with 600 tons of explosives, creating the largest artificial explosion ever, unsurpassed until Trinity, in a blast that was heard over 100 miles away, killing 10,000 people in a matter of seconds at the start of the offensive.
The Halifax Explosion occurred in Canada, when a ship carrying munitions to the war caught fire, killing 2,000, injuring over 9,000, and flattening the town. It's considered the largest accidental explosion. Meaning, the largest purposeful conventional explosion, and the largest accidental explosion are both due to this war.
After all was totaled up, it is reckoned that one ton of explosives was used killing each of the war's casualties.
There is also the Paris Gun, an enormous cannon built by the Germans that could fire shells eighty miles, so far and high that Coriolis Force affected the shots.
British Empire and Commonwealth armies were assembled from a quarter of the globe. A flotilla of Japanese destroyers even served with the British Mediterranean fleet.
France used troops from across its Empire (mostly from Senegal) and the famous Foreign Legion... all of them treated as cannon fodder.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire included not only Austria and Hungary but many other central European and Balkan regions, nations and city states as well.
The Ottoman Empire included modern Turkey and all of the middle east from present-day Iraq to Egypt (although Egypt split off almost as soon as the war began—being semi-independent since the early 19th century and occupied by Britain since the 1880s).
The Russian Empire formed the first Latvian Riflemen brigades during this war. That came to bite them in the ass when the Riflemen supported Bolsheviks, giving the Reds a good number of battle hardened troops resenting the Empire.
The Czechoslovak Legion, originally organized from Austro-Hungarian POWs, would also play a major role in the Russian Civil War.
Czechoslovak troops also fought alongside the Italians against Austria-Hungary, which included the lands that would form their countries.
And of course the United States, during its brief participation, contributed troops of numerous ethnic backgrounds—many of which were actually immigrants or the children or grandchildren of immigrants from the Central Powers (a large number of Midwestern German-Americans in particular became officersnote The background revealed for Jay Gatsby seems to be based on this trend.).
Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Midway through the Battle of Verdun, the deadliest fighting was for a hill called "Le Mort Homme": The Dead Mannote "Le mort" or "l'homme mort" is the correct French for "the dead man". Unlike most wartime geographic features that acquire names like this, Mort Homme's name was from before the war.
The name originally (in the 12th century) came from a dead elm tree ("orme") at a moment where spelling was optional. Still a case of Harsher in Hindsight, though.
Neutral No Longer: Several examples. The British Empire after the invasion of neutral Belgium and the United States when Germany enacted unrestricted submarine warfare.
Never My Fault: The Ottoman Empire's reaction to its crippling loss to the Russians after trying to invade in the dead of winter. Instead of blaming bad judgment on their part, they turned on the minorities within their empire for allegedly 'helping' the Russians.
It is certain that a good number of the Armenians and Pontic Greeks on the campaign were spies for the Russians (though they were ironically outnumbered by the number of spies amongst the ethnic Turks the Russians had been cultivating since the 1870's) in part because of the Young Turks' savage reprisals against their entire communities for the actions of a handful of radicals. It is also certain that they did next to nothing in contributing to the Turkish defeat compared to the pure idiocy of Enver Pasha.
Ironically, if the Ottoman army had invested more in helping the Germans fight rather than using much of their firearms and soldiers executing a Final Solution on their own citizens, they may have stood more of a chance of winning. But, since they'd been massacring their Christian population on and off since the 1890's, they likely just saw their defeat by Russia as a good excuse to spread paranoia about all of them being traitors and finish them all off, regardless of how many actually were rooting for the other side. But one can hardly blame, for instance, the besieged Armenians of the city of Van for holding out for the Russian army to liberate them rather than let the Ottoman army march them into the Syrian desert to die.
The German General Staff, Ludendorff in particular, basically told the new German government to surrender for them, allowing the Army to blame the civilian population for Germany's impending defeat. The resulting "stab-in-the-back" legend was used to tremendous effect by Adolf Hitler during his rise to power.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The Treaty of Versailles. Especially the debate in the United States over its ratification: Anti-Treaty Republicans wanted compromise, especially in regards to President Woodrow Wilson's idea for the League of Nations. Having spurned the Republicans at Versailles by refusing to bring any Republicans along to the Peace Conference (even though the Republican Senate Majority Leader/Foreign Relations Committee Chair Henry Cabot Lodge was clearly expecting a spot on the delegation), Wilson found a firestorm of opposition waiting for him at home, and attempted to launch a nationwide campaign to rally support for the League. He overexerted himself campaigning and suffered a debilitating stroke that left the nation devoid of any real executive power at a critical juncture. The US failed to join the League as a result, and Wilson, upon hearing of its final defeat on the Senate floor, in one of his brief moments of coherence, is said to have commented "they have shamed us in the eyes of the world". The US failed to give its own critical involvement to the League of Nations, leaving it a weak and toothless organization that would largely prove impotent when faced against aggressive and ambitious dictators willing to flout international law.
There's also a far-reaching incident that happened with Wilson while he was eating at a restaurant. A Vietnamese waiter came up to him and wanted to talk to him about French Indochina and the possibility of its independence from France. Wilson brushed him off. The waiter's name? Nguyễn Ái Quốc, who later changed his name to Ho Chi Minh.
In general, Wilson's 14 Points were about how every ethnic group should have their state and be free from other people's rule. Except if that ethnic group was not from Europe, or German.
The first recorded cases of Spanish flu were among soldiers in Kansas. This makes it likely that American soldiers sent to the front lines were the ones who unknowingly carried it over to Europe, Typhoid Mary style.
Nice job helping Lenin get back to Russia, Germany; allowing a Communist takeover which would beat you in World War II.
Nice job training German soldiers in secret after the war, Russia.
Nice job pestering about the German colonies and the border areas of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Wilson. The Italian diplomats were idiots at leaving in protest while talking about the colonies, but between the missing colonial compensations and the problems at keeping the lands Italy wanted from Austria you just convinced Benito Mussolini that Italy needs a dictator...
The Germans saw the conditions imposed on them by the Treaty of Versailles as infuriatingly harsh. The French felt it was nowhere near harsh enough. In a way, both were right; Versailles was the worst of both worlds. Germany was humiliated and wanted vengeance, and was still powerful enough to actually seek it.
No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: In a British Officer's diary entry about the Battle of Loos he notes at one point seeing a Scottish soldier, who having lost his rifle proceeded to headbutt a particular German to death.
Older Than They Think: Aircraft carriers saw combat for the first time during this war, though they would gain fame during World War II. These ships suffered badly from Early-Installment Weirdness, since nobody had yet worked out exactly what an ideal aircraft carrier would look like, or even what purpose they would eventually serve. HMS Furious originally had a flight deck that only covered the forward portion of the ship, with the superstructure and an 18 inch gun behind itnote Even after they had switched to the distinctive "flat tops" with an off-set superstructure, it would be common for carriers to carry heavy anti-ship armament until well into World War II.
The earliest aircraft carriers were all originally intended to be something else and redesigned during construction. The HMS Furious was a redesigned (and very odd) "large light cruiser". The HMS Argus, seen here in 1918 with a battleship in the background◊, was a repurposed passenger liner. They were also fairly small. Don't let the apparent bulk of the HMS Argus fool you. The Revenge-class battleship in the background was about 60 feet longer, 20 feet wider, drew five more feet of water, and was twice as massive as the Argus.note The photograph description says the background ship is a Renown-class battlecruiser, but this is wrong. It can't be anything but a Revenge-class battleship because it has superimposed centerline twin turrets, no midship or wing turrets, one funnel, and a tripod foremast. No class of WWI era warship except for the Revenge-class fits that description.
Only Sane Man: Charles I of Austria-Hungary, who became Emperor right in the middle of a war he didn't want to fight. He proposed a "peace without recriminations" in which all parties would simply lay down their weapons and go home to rebuild their shattered countries. The Entente simply scoffed at the proposal, while the Germans were furious about Charles' plan to "abandon" them. Charles was then deposed at the end of the war. He tried to regain the Hungarian throne, but the Entente would never have allowed it, and the sitting ruler of Hungary didn't want trouble from them, even though it meant breaking his former oaths of loyalty to Charles. In the end, Charles died in poverty, exiled to the Portuguese island of Madeira. For everything he had done, he was Beatified by Pope John Paul II,[[note]]Whose parents named him after the Emperor, incidentally; John Paul II's given names, Karol J, are the Polonised forms of Emperor Charles' German name (Karl Josef). and he will probably be Canonised a saint before long.
Anatole France:Emperor Karl is the only decent man to come out of the war in a leadership position, yet he was a saint and no one listened to him. He sincerely wanted peace, and therefore was despised by the whole world. It was a wonderful chance that was lost.
Benedict XV, too. He repeatedly said that the war was "the suicide of civilized Europe", even from the beginning, and proposed peace treaties similar to Blessed Karl's every year of the war. Nobody listened to him, either.
Some have argued, however, that Emperor Karl was the right man at the wrong time, as by the time he ascended the throne, not only was the conflict reaching its bloodiest, but his own Empire was teetering on the verge of chaos. He would have been much more successful had he taken Franz Joseph's place at the beginning of the war.
There was Lord Kitchener, the British Minister of War, who was the only senior government minister of the belligerents to correctly see that the war was going to become a gigantic bloody slog lasting for years, and was in a position of authority to do something about it such as raising a massive volunteer army.
Patriotic Fervour: Everyone. At least, at the start. It became a big factor at the end, too, with national independence movements springing up all over the place. One example overlooked by historians in the latter 20th Century but now starting to be studied more because of recent events is the series of uprisings against the collapsing Ottoman Empire known as the Arab Revolt, which saw the almost-independence of most of the Middle-East before the Entente swept in and started mandating and redrawing the map of the middle east with very far-reaching consequences.
With Anti-German sentiment running high in the US, many things were re-named to disassociate them from German origins: Sauerkraut -> "Liberty Cabbage", Dachshunds -> "Liberty Hounds", German Measles -> "Liberty Measles", Frankfurters -> "Hot Dogs"
Not just a US thing. In Britain German Shepherds-> Alsatians, House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha -> House of Windsor, the Battenbergs -> Mountbatten. It's said that when the Kaiser heard that the English royal family had changed their name to "Windsor," he immediately proclaimed that he would retaliate by renaming Shakespeare's play to The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Averted in Berlin, New Hampshire. They kept the name perhaps because the local pronounciation accented the first syllable (BER-lin as opposed to ber-LIN).
Even in Russia, Sankt Petersburg > Petrograd (> Leningrad, post Russian Civil War).
In France, too: The Métro station "Allemagne" (i.e. Germany) was renamed "Jaurès" after a very popular socialist pacifist who was assassinated 1914/07/31. Similarly, "Berlin Street" was renamed "Liège Street" to honour Belgium's fighting spirit. There are many, many other examples (a little town named Allemagne was renamed Fleury-sur-Orne). This led to the fun fact that Berlin was the only European capital which didn't have any street nor landmark in Paris. Until 2000, where the "Berlin town square" was created.
It didn't apply just to places or items, many immigrants were forced to change their names to more "American" sounding ones.
"Schmidt" became "Smith", "Schneider" became "Snider" (why not "Taylor"? That's what it means, after all), "Huber" became "Hoover"...
The Poppy: A Commonwealth remembrance symbol instituted in 1920, first used as such in 1918 and inspired by the 1915 war poem "In Flanders Field".
Pretext for War: The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Despite mediators' attempting to stop the war.
Pyrrhic Victory: The Battle of the Marne stopped the German invasion of France, but it led to a bloody stalemate on the Western Front for years.
Red Scare: The Trope codifier, as it saw the Bolsheviks came to power in Russiawith the help of the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, who proceeded to break away from the Entente and try to confiscate various Entente military supplies still in Russia, which eventually ballooned into all out civil war, a Western intervention, and several foreign invasions that left a great deal of animosity between the Soviets and most of the rest of the World and sharp internal divisions and suspicion of the domestic Left throughout the West.
The Ross rifle was entirely designed and built in Canada, was quite powerful, accurate, and had a straight-pull bolt that allowed a rate of fire even higher than the Enfield (which, when fired rapidly by a squad of well-trained Tommies, often fooled German troops into thinking they had encountered a machine gun). However, that straight-pull bolt was mechanically complex and totally intolerant of dirt... which was, of course everywhere for infantry to crawl around in. Furthermore, it could be assembled incorrectly, allowing it to chamber and fire a round without the bolt completely locked into the receiver, often blasting it right back into the shooter's face. The Canadians promptly ditched them whenever they could get themselves some Enfields, although they were used quite effectively as sniper rifles.
The Chauchat light machine gun was an excellent concept, a kind of automatic rifle employed while on the move, firing from the hip, providing suppressing fire for advancing infantry. In practice, over 90% of them were made by an inexperienced company who constructed vehicles before the war and led to impressively abysmal performance, with the weapon's mechanical complexity rendering it singularly poor in reliability. The magazines had windows cut into them to let the shooter see how much ammunition he had left, but this also let in dirt and mud such that a survey conducted in 1916 reported that two-thirds of stoppages were caused by this flaw. Chauchat gunners were known to load their magazine which a round or two less than the maximum because apparently the first round would fail to feed otherwise. Even the sights were always misaligned. That being said, the other less-than-10% made by a different company fared better, magazines with stronger springs were later issued and closed magazine were tested (though too late to be placed into service for the war), the mud and dirt of the trenches still affected other guns of all shapes and sizes, and post-war accounts of its ineffectiveness can be blamed upon it being fired incorrectly "limp-wristing" (the weapon's long-recoil action requires being held hard against the shoulder to keep it from bouncing around and causing jams, albeit this is still something of a difficult task considering its 8mm Lebel cartridge is not a low-powered round) or using poor-quality ammunition whose construction would have hardly been recent as the ammo has been out of service for over half a century.
The US Army adopted the weapon after entering the war and rechambered it in their .30-06 round. It exacerbated the weapons' issues to near-comical levels, and it turned out years later that this could be blamed on how the rechambering measurements were converted incorrectly. It is likely from this version of the weapon which contributed to the worst of the Chauchat's reputation - in the version's (nominal) usage, U.S. gunners was quickly abandoned them for standard-issue rifles that would probably actually usually fire when you pull the trigger, and either apathy, rushed production, or tossing out the pointless trash has led to how there is no evidence of actual instruction manuals for this version found in any American or French archives.
Royals Who Actually Do Something: King Albert I of Belgium took personal command of his nation's army and fought on the front lines alongside his troops for the duration; his wife also spent the war serving as a nurse in a field hospital.
Karl von Habsburg served in the front lines before becoming Emperor. What he witnessed would help influence his actions later on.
England's Prince Albert, the future King George VI, served as a naval officer in the Battle of Jutland and was mentioned in dispatches. For obvious reasons he served under a pseudonym.
Debateable: Germany suffered the largest confirmed death toll at around two million. Russian figures may have been higher, but no one is sure. If you include the immediately subsequent Russian civil war, then this trope is played straight.
Problem with Russia is how do you figure 'Russian' death tolls as it was a multinational empire at the war's start and a different multinational dictatorship at the end. Do you count Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian etc. deaths as Russian or not? It impacts the overall numbers.
Less debatable is the awful state of the Russian logistics system. Despite fielding some of the best-armed troops of the war, ammunition for their durable, high-quality, and plentiful weapons (which consumed similarly plentiful quantities of ammunition) was totally inadequate. Even food was scarce at times, particularly in 1917, though somewhat ironically this shortage was the direct result of the quality and quantity of the aforementioned weapons. The food shortage in turn led to the Russian Revolution and Civil War.
Russians with Rifles: As the largest force in the war, and the one with the most and best artillery in 1914 (though this came to nothing because of just how awful their infantry-artillery coordination was). But in 1915, during the height of the Central Powers' campaign to defeat Russia, many of the replacement-troops pressed into service (given the million captured or dead Russian troops) lacked heavy weapons and in some instance even rifles (though this was chiefly among the supply-troops and Opolchenie/militia who were unexpectedly pressed into action due to the encirclements). This was fixed by 1917... whereupon a food became evident (as a direct consequence of fixing the material/weaponry shortage, no less!)
Schizo Tech: The introduction of poison gas, tanks, and surveillance aircraft (as well as one of the first campaigns of aerial assault led by Lt. Commander Peter Strasser) mixed with distinctly old-world attitudes and aesthetics.
Definitely true in the Middle Eastern theater, where both sides made heavy use of horse cavalry alongside tanks and airplanes. Allenby's Anglo-Australian cavalry played a decisive role at both Beersheba and Megiddo in the Palestine Campaign. On a smaller scale, Arab Revolt forces mixed primitive hit-and-run tactics with machine guns, mortars and high explosives.
Trench warfare brought back a lot of technology that had been considered obsolete for centuries:
Helmets: Reduced to decoration and used mostly by cavalry forces after the 17th century. The Germans based their new stahlhelms in Thirty Years' War designs; the British, in Hundred Years War archer helmets.
Knives weren't commonly issued early in trench warfare (unlike bayonets, and officers still carried ceremonial swords). Soldiers in the trenches would even write their families to send them the biggest kitchen knife in the house so they could use it in close combat in the trenches, where the bayonet was not maneuverable. Others used makeshift clubs and maces.
After knives made a comeback, some soldiers donned chain mail beneath the uniform.
Assault troops and machine gunners (the most sought target since they were hated by everyone) used plate armor. Machine gunners even used full helmets reminiscent of 15th century knights. German assault troops phased them out after practical tests, however. Eventually, these and the chain mail combined with the modern technology of lightweight, high-strength plastics (already in development, although even researchers didn't realize it at the time) to bring about modern body armor.
Snipers used mobile shields akin to miniature Medieval pavises.
While lancers and cavalry charges were quickly phased out in the Western Front, they saw limited use for the whole of the war. Both riders and mounts were issued gas masks.
And we go back to grenades. After a while, it became dangerous to rise from the trench to throw them. So the French used crossbows.
Galleries dug to assault enemy trenches or filled with explosives to blow them out. Similar procedures were used to take a fortified city since Mesopotamian times, even though most city fortifications in Europe had been demolished in the 19th century.
The Tachanka, used in Ukraine and Poland, a wooden cart with a mounted machine gun.
The Italians started equipping their own assault-troops with the so-called Farina◊ cuirasses◊ - basically, these people had to don a very heavy iron anti-shrapnel armour which covered them from head to toes, and then march just behind the creeping barrage cutting the barbed wire for the unprotected follow-on troops. It didn't work.
Serial Escalation: A lot of the war was spent building and then making the spare-parts for more and more weapons and types of ammunition and testing them on the front with all sorts of different battle-tactics. From poison gas to tanks, etc. the tools of death became consistently more common, deadlier-per-hit, and less wastefully used.
Shell-Shocked Veteran: The Trope Namer, as the term "shell shock" emerged from the war, and practically every common footsoldier (though not only them) came back afflicted. The condition was not immediately recognised and many sufferers were executed for desertion as a result. Some did receive very posthumous pardons, however.
Shotguns Are Just Better: So much so that the Germans decided that anybody captured with one would be executed on the spot.
This is likely Values Dissonance at work. Americans had been using shotguns as firearm protection since the Wild West days (they were used on horse carriages for protection as rifles were expensive and took time to aimnote it's also why today the front passenger seat in a car is "shotgun") so using them on human threats was nothing new, plus they proved really useful in clearing winding trenches in close quarters. In Europe, on the other hand, shotguns were used by the upper-class on hunting trips - to the Germans it was akin to treating human soldiers like game.
Shot at Dawn: Not as common as people think. Most of the British soldiers killed were actually shot for things like murder and many sentences were commuted.
Other armies such as the Royal Italian Army were a different story, however. Around 6% of the ranks were tried by Court Martial and shot.
A Simple Plan: The 'Schlieffen Plan' of 1905, as it was done to prove the general point that Germany had to stick to counter-offensives because she didn't have the numbers or the horses for offensives and trying would only end in tears - modeling it more thoroughly would just have been a waste of their time, because the overall result was so obvious (whereas Germany usually had a decent chance of success in the usual defensive plans they practiced). Schlieffen and the handful of senior officers who played it out were adamant that it could never have worked, even if the German Army was expanded by the 200,000 troops that they had modeled in the scenario (for a total of 1.1 million, versus 700k French troops) and was able to deploy all its forces against France instead of needing at least 100k to defend against Russia. But though even the Germans themselves didn't think a German offensive would get far, they did get uncomfortably close to Paris when they actually tried it in 1914. By extension, the initial "Charge->Bangabang->Tea+ Crumpets->VICTORY!" war-plans of Britain.
The original plan that eventually led to Gallipoli was based on the (not entirely unreasonable) idea that the Russians' follow-up offensive (after their devastating victory in Georgia, which had apparently annihilated the Ottoman army) would tie up enough troops that they would practically be able to waltz into Constantinople unopposed. However, for reasons we still don't know for surenote But almost certainly had something to do with the way that Germany had given up on France for the time being (until her economy could be fully mobilised and her troops properly outfitted and provisioned) and instead worked with Austria-Hungary to defeat Russia before Russia's own economy could be mobilised. Things were extremely touch-and-go for Russia that year as she lost over a million troops (mostly captured) and suffered defeat after defeat, losing all of Poland. By Christmas things were beginning to wind down as Germany prepared to focus on France again, but by that stage Britain-France had decided to abort the Dardanelles campaign the Russian offensive never happened. As a result the Entente's offensive was contested by large numbers of Ottoman troops and so ended up needing several times more troops than they could really supply properly. Even a tactical-operational genius on the Entente side (to counter Ataturk) couldn't have magicked away their supply problems.
Sixth Ranger: The most famous example in this war being the United States of America, joining the war in 1918 and sending fresh troops and horses and motor-cars and ships to free up more and more veteran troops of the Entente Powers for combat-units.
The Remnant: Enver Pasha, erstwhile co-ruler of Turkey, wound up in Central Asia organizing various Turkic tribes in an attempt to recreate the Ottoman Empire from scratch. The Soviet Union defeated this makeshift army and killed Enver himself in 1922.
The aforementioned Paul Lettow Vorbeck did not surrender until several weeks after the November 11th armistice. Fahreddin Pasha's Turkish garrison in Medina did not surrender until January 1919, having enduring two-and-a-half years of siege by Arab forces.
By the time the armistice came into effect, the Austro-Hungarian armed forces were among the only functioning elements of the Habsburg Monarchy left. Much of the Empire was in the throes of nationalist revolution and general upheaval, although it wouldn't be until Versailles and Trianon that the last holdouts finally gave in. In a sense, they outlasted the Empire they served.
Although Serbia was completely overrun after Bulgaria joined the war, the Serbian Army remained intact and fighting as it retreated into Albania (then in a state of complete anarchy) and Greece (on the brink of civil war itself between pro-Ententeand pro-neutral factions).
3,700 Luxembourgers joined the French Army after their country was occupied by Germany. 2,000 of them died. That's 1% of the country's pre-war population.
Britain's 6th Indian Division endured a 147-day siege at Kut, Mesopotamia between December 1915 and April 1916 before finally surrendering to Turkish forces, making it the longest siege in British military history.
The Turkish garrison of Medina were besieged for two-and-a-half years by forces of the Arab Revolt. They held out until January 1919, three months after the Ottoman Empire's surrender.
Of course, one could view the entire Western Front as one giant protracted siege.
Small Name, Big Ego: Charles V.F. Townshend, the commander of British forces at Kut, is a trope codifier. Marginally famous pre-war for defending the Indian fortress at Chitral (winning a Victoria Cross in the process), his private writings and official correspondence reveal a man who, to be polite, had a high opinion of himself. Namely, constant lectures on military history to his superior officers, comparing himself to Alexander the Great, Clausewitz and Napoleon, and convincing his commanding officer that his single division could beat an entire Turkish army and capture Baghdad. While serving as POW at war's end he took it upon himself to try and negotiate with the Ottoman Empire. Worse, Townshend's post-war memoirs reveal he learned absolutely nothing from the experience.
The Sound of Martial Music: The War marked the twilight of the Habsburg monarchy, with Austria-Hungary crumbling under the weight of nationalist upheaval war defeat.
Stuffed into the Fridge: The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires definitely shared this fate at war's end. In terms of individual lives, as many as 65 million cases, depending upon whether you include things like the Spanish Flu, the famine and civil war in Russia, the Armenian genocide, and other incidents directly or proximately caused by the war.
Take Our Word for It: Popular accounts of battles during WWI told stories of great, sweeping victories. These tend to range from confirmably true to unsubstantiated until being outright lies.
Subverted in that the most advanced and numerous tank of the war, the piddly Renault FT, was initially mocked as looking like an over-sized toy compared to the visually impressive yet lumbering British designs (seen on the title picture) by contemporaries, and had to compete with other designs such as the behemothicChar 2C for resources before it went into production. It not only set the standard pattern of most other tank designs afterward (that is, a tank with a single rotating turret), but was also the tank that George S. Patton personally used during the war and saw service until the end of the Second World War.
Also, tanks, having started out here, unsurprisingly were much less impressively good. The aforementioned advanced-for-its-time Renault FT tank had a top speed that was somewhere around 50% more than average adult walking speed - most other tanks were essentially plodding around.
Tear Jerker: Many heart-warming poems and gut-wrenching stories were written, but perhaps the greatest tearjerker of the entire conflict is the reality of millions of men, no matter their nationality, going into battle perfectly aware they were going to die. To make it even more tragic, the war itself would help set up an 'even worse' world war just a few years later.
Not just him. Unfortunately, the "stab in the back" ("Dolschstoss" in German) legend became ever more popular as the former Central Powers strained under the weight of the Great Depression. The legend basically said that Germany (or sometimes Austria or Hungary) were defeated not by foreign troops, but by "traitors", "Jews", "communists", "cowardly politicians" etc. who sabotaged the war from behind. The Nazis masterfully manipulated these feelings to seize power.
Warrior Poet: Many, many poets and writers served in the war. Siegfried Sassoon, JRR Tolkien, and John McCrae are only a few examples. With the most famous war poet being Wilfred Owen, who died one week before the armistice.
The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who died of Spanish flu just two days before the Armistice...
Among the most famous were also Charles Péguy and Alain-Fournier who died on the field. France has a whole association for fighting writers.
Gabriele D'Annunzio is the most infamous due his tendency to pull off insane acts and survive (including flying all the way from Italy to Vienna in a bomber and dropping leaflets just to prove they could).
We Win Because You Didn't: The Entente may have claimed final victory, but at the cost of millions of lives and the destruction of millions in property. Also, Russia imploded and had no part in the peace talks, despite having been part of the winning side.
Postwar analysis of the original Schlieffen Plan showed that with the extra 300k troops they wanted (and no expansion of the French Army to match them) and the use of the Netherlands' excellent rail infrastructure a German offensive into France could have succeeded. But of course, there was no way in hell the German Socialist Party was going to give them the money to expand the army by a third when they flat-out refused even to increase funding to just keep pace with France (let alone Russia, whose military capabilities were set to double by 1920).
While it's commonly claimed that the interlocking system of alliances would have eventually led to some sort of massive conflict, the (eventual) Russian mobilisation may have led Germany to think twice on that front. That, combined with the sheer amounts of bad luck involved in Franz Ferdinand's death, have led many to posit what would have happened had there been no spark to start the war in the first place.
Worthy Opponent: The Red Baron and Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck were highly respected by their enemies. From the other side, many famous Entente heroes were this way.
The bravery of the French garrison of Fort Vaux in the Battle of Verdun impressed the German Crown Prince so much he treated them with the greatest respect.
Also Karl von Müller and the crew of the German commerce raider SMS Emden, which sank 16 Entente merchant ships without taking a life. When she was finally sunk and her crew taken prisoner even the heavily anti-German British press saluted their courage and gallantry.
The ANZAC troops that took part in Gallipoli and the Turks would later hold each other as this. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who had taken part in the Battle of Gallipoli and eventually became the first president of the Republic of Turkey, inaugurated a memorial to the ANZAC soldiers that had died there with a speech so magnificent that it was used in the memorial to him on Anzac Parade.
Wrong Genre Savvy: Lots of this, in many forms. Particularly once the Russian Civil War began, there was some romanticization of the War as a "global revolution." The 19th Century was very much the age of revolutions, with many nationalist and (small-r) republican movements springing up around the world. Colonial empires were slowly being dismantled from within, territories breaking away, becoming independent nations, and spreading democracy. From that perspective, the Great War was seen as the death throes of Imperialism, where the empires that dominated the world would fade away and be replaced by a more equitable, more modern form of government. Yeah...not exactly...
You Can't Fight Fate: The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie feels like this. There were six separate assassins. The first chickened out. So did the second. The third threw a bomb, which bounced off the royal car and exploded under the following car, injuring several people. The fourth, fifth, and sixth assassins (including Gavrilo Princip) failed to act as the royal limo sped off to the planned reception. Ferdinand gave his scheduled speech; Princip went to a deli to have a sandwich. After the speech Ferdinand decided to visit the wounded from the bombing in the hospital—but no one told the driver, who proceeded to make a wrong turn. Informed of this, the driver stopped the car, right in front of the deli where Princip had gone. Princip then fatally shot the Archduke and his wife, and World War I broke out a month later.
Young Future Famous People: Due to conscription, you generally couldn't throw a brick in the trenches without hitting someone who would grow up to be an important writer/actor/scientist/future political leader etc. (most notably Adolf Hitler). Which has led some to speculate on just how much the 20th century would have been enriched considering how many potential future famous people were killed in the war.
Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Many, many cases. Most notably, the war's triggering event — if not its outright cause due to the powder keg nature of diplomacy at the time — was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife by Gavrilo Princip of the Anarchist/Nationalist (go figure) group Young Bosnia, which was a front for Unification Or Death AKA the Black Hand, and who is still viewed as a hero by large segments of the population of the former Yugoslavia. Also see the nationalist undergrounds within the Turkish and Russian Empires and the Bolsheviks.
Zerg Rush - A commonly used strategy, usually leading to a resounding victory - for the defenders.
Well, it did sometimes get victories for the attackers. Entire inches of ground were gained by large enough charges. Probably the biggest example of this was the Battle of the Somme. One million men dead, for six miles. That's thirty one young men, some boys, fathers, sons, brothers - dead...for twelve inches of ground.
Big Finish Doctor Who: In the first Dark Eyes series (2012), Eighth Doctor companion Molly O'Sullivan is a nursing assistant during the war, with her first story, "The Great War", being set here.
The most famous comic book example is DC's Enemy Ace, about the trials of an elite German flying ace who is profoundly haunted by the constant death around him of which he is a master dealer in the unforgiving sky.
Charlie's War is a classic British comic with socialist overtones that does not flinch from the horrors of battle.
One of the past incarnations of the goddess Promethea was an angelic figure helping the soldiers fighting in the trenches of World War I.
The Phantom Eagle was an American pilot who fought against the Germans. He had to disguise his identity in order to protect his German-born parents (they had returned to Germany at the beginning of the War) from reprisals.
Union Jack fought on the Western front against the Germans.
John Steele (America's first super-soldier, complete with steel-hard skin and super-strength)also fought on the Western front.
Freedom's Five was a team of heroes who fought for the Entente: Union Jack (U.K.), Phantom Eagle (America), Sir Steel and the Silver Squire (U.K.), and the Crimson Cavalier (France).
Villain Baron Blood was an English traitor who fought for the Kaiser.
Nick Fury's father, Jack Fury, served as a pilot in the war.
The older version is considered one of the greatest and most important movies on WWI created, as per the Library of Congress. Also listed as the 7th Most Epic Film (well, 7th in the "Epic" genre of films, whatever that means) in the American Film Institute's list of the Top Ten of the 10 Classic American Film Genres. It's also probably the Trope Maker / Trope Codifier of the modern war movie.
Black and White In Color is a French movie set somewhere in West Africa, on the border between a French colony and a German colony. When the French get news that they're at war with Germany, then they (well, the Africans under their control) go to war. It ends with the English arriving to announce that the Germans' superiors have already surrendered.
The A&E cable network made a movie called and about The Lost Battalion, a US Army unit that during an attack was cut-off behind German lines. Fighting off attack after attack and in spite of mounting casualties and dwindling supplies they rejected every surrender demand that was made. They were rescued and returned back to US lines.
And the book it's based on Mimi and Toutou's Big Adventure. The Tangiyaka campaign was just messed up.
Mimi and Toutou came well after that film, which was based on CS Forester's novel of the same name. The true story has been told in many places.
Dawn Patrol — Basil Rathborne has to keep sending out pilots with single digit flying hours, Errol Flynn has to lead them. Rather accurate about the particulars of air strategy. But the planes are 1918 types, and the situation is more 1916-17 (bloody April especially).
The Lighthorsemen is an Australian film about a stunningly effective (and Truth in Television) mounted charge by Australian horsemen against entrenched Turkish infantry supported by artillery and machine guns, in Palestine.
Explained in-film as a result of the Turkish expectation that the Australians (who were mounted infantry, NOT cavalry) would dismount and advance on foot since they lacked sabres, and had set the sights on their rifles and MG's to the range corresponding to the dismount point. When they charge in on horseback instead, the Turks are so surprised and frightened that they simply blaze away and forget to re-set their sights to account for the decreasing range.
Much of the footage from the movie was used again by the director Simon Wincer in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles he directed about the same historical incident but with young Indy inserted in as an Entente spy. The episode also featured then-unknown actors Daniel Craig and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
A very touching 2005 French movie, Joyeux Noël ("Merry Christmas"), is about French and British soldiers briefly fraternizing with German soldiers on Christmas of 1914.
The 1941 Gary Cooper film Sergeant York was based on the true story of Sgt Alvin York, a pacifist farmhand who became an American hero and earned its highest military honor, the Medal Of Honor, for an incident in 1918 where he single-handedly killed and captured over a hundred German soldiers.
Shout At The Devil: A 1968 novel and 1976 film about a private war between English poachers and a German colonial official in East Africa.
The French film A Very Long Engagement is about Audrey Tatou's character's search for her fiancé who was lost and presumed dead in no man's land during the Battle of the Somme. We see WW1 told through some pretty graphic flashbacks of the other men he was stationed with.
Zeppelin!: 1970 Michael York film about a German plot to steal the British crown jewels using the eponymous zeppelin and featuring flying sequences using accurate reproductions of actual WWI aircraft.
The Eagle and the Hawk - depressingly realistic B&W movie in which the hero becomes increasingly and profoundly disillusioned by the number of young pilots dying under his command, finally snapping when the enemy ace he kills turns out to be no more than a fuzzy-cheeked youth. Driven beyond the brink, he kills himself. His best friend takes his body up in a two-seater and, using the rear gun, peppers the wings and the hero's head with bullets to make it appear as though he died in combat and thereby save his reputation.
The 1965 film The Blue Max is the story of a German infantryman, Lt. Bruno Stachel, who transfers to the German Air Service towards the end of the war. His ruthless kill-or-be-killed attitude clashes with the squadron's old fashioned notions of chivalry. Most well known for its excellent aerial stunts and flying scenes.
1970s British drama Aces High, a very down-to-earth and touching portrayal of the lives (and deaths) of a regular squadron of fighter pilots.
There's a little known 2004 independent film about American soldiers on the western front in 1918, called Company K. It's based on a semi-autobiographic novel by William March, one of the American veterans of the war.
Passchendaele, written, directed, and starring Canadian Paul Gross, based on his grandfather's war diary.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips It starts when Mr. Chipping ("Chips") is a young teacher in 1870 and goes through his fifty year career. During WWI he reads aloud a "Roll of Honour", the names of those killed in battle which include many of Chip's former students and fellow teachers. One of them is an old friend of Chips, a German who fought on his country's side.
The Officers' Ward in 2001, about the "gueules cassées" ("broken faces" in French: war invalids and horribly disfigured men).
Capitaine Conan by Bertrand Tavernier, about the French corps in the Balkans.
La France (2007), a somewhat surreal French film in which a woman disguises herself as a teenage soldier to find her husband at the front, ironically joining a squad of deserters en route. And it's (sort of) a musical.
Käsky, or Tears of April, a 2008 Finnish novel adaptation about a Red POW in the Finnish Civil War of 1918, the White soldier responsible for her, and the corrupt military judge in charge of her trial.
The first section of The Great Dictator is set in this war, setting up the fascist dictators analogy in the rest of the film.
Wilson is a 1944 biopic about Woodrow Wilson, with much of the film focusing on his actions during World War I and his efforts to get the U.S. into the League of Nations. As you might have guessed from the release date, the movie was created largely as propaganda for the then-ongoing sequel.
Shoulder Arms (1918) was the product of Charlie Chaplin's rather daring decision to make a comedy out of the horrors of trench warfare while the war was still going on. It proved to be one of his most popular films.
Doughboys, the best of a generally uninspiring collection of talking films made by Buster Keaton at MGM, features Buster enlisting by accident, going through boot camp, and then fighting in the trenches in France.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) by German writer Erich Maria Remarque, another WWI staple of the western literary canon. The story follows a young German soldier from his idealistic enlistment through the horrors of war as his compatriots die one by one. Ironically, the story was written in German, by a German war veteran, depicting the German side of the war, but it has become the most popular depiction of the war for English speaking audiences.
The poem My Boy Jack (1915), about the death of Rudyard Kipling's only son in the war.
John Buchan's Richard Hannay stories, seminal spy thrillers that were both written and set in WWI. The 39 Steps (1915) has been adapted multiple times, although the Alfred Hitchcock version is a very loose adaptation, set in the 1930s. Buchan portrays Wilhelm II fairly sympathetically.
The Sherlock Holmes story, His Last Bow (1917), takes place in England during the run up to the war, with Holmes attempting to deal with a German spy network in England. He succeeds.
My Reminiscences of East Africa (1920) is General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbek's diary from his service in East Africa at this time.
As mentioned in the above, the L.M. Montgomery book Rilla of Ingleside (1921) chronicles the eponymous character's experiences throughout the entire war, in quite a bit of detail that could only come from first-hand experience. Given that level of detail, it's supremely odd she made no mention at all of the 1918 influenza pandemic, not even in passing. It devastated Canada as thoroughly as it did the rest of the world, having a profound effect on many of the events she relates, yet the word 'flu' or 'influenza' is never once mentioned.
Quite a lot of H.P. Lovecraft stories feature WWI in the background somewhere (e.g. Herbert West, Reanimator-1922) - not surprising given that he did a lot of his writing in the 1920s.
He specifically mentions in The Silver Key that his dreamer-hero Randolph Carter saw action with the French Foreign Legion and suffered near-fatal injuries in the Battle of the Somme, near Belloy-en-Santerre. He apparently still had PTSD from this in "The Statement of Randolph Carter" where his friend Warren describes him as a nervous wreck.
This has some truth in it, only the Author Avatar was a different character entirely. Hašek never tried to hide the fact that the novel was largely autobiographical. His avatar, however, was not Švejk, but his friend, a bumbling former journalist, volunteer Marek.
The early (and best) Biggles stories are set in the War, though the character debuted in 1932.
The first part of the novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), by the famous French author Céline, takes place during World War One. The main character, who sees the war as a lot of frightening and senseless violence, does his best to avoid risking his life. After being wounded, he manages not to be sent back to the western front until the war is over.
The novel - and later film - Johnny Got His Gun (1938) by Dalton Trumbo: A horrifying story of a young American soldier, who has his arms, legs and face blown off, leaving him blind, deaf, dumb and immobile, a living torso in a hospital bed, with no way of communicating until he figures out how to tap the Morse code with the back of his head.
Related, Metallica's song One retells the same story. The band bought the rights for the movie to use it in the video for that song.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), a collection of three short stories by Katherine Anne Potter, is apparently the only major work on the Spanish flu epidemic.
The Razor's Edge (1944) by William Somerset Maugham features Larry Darrell, a World War I pilot who is wounded and traumatized in the War. He spends the rest of the novel searching for ways to adjust to the post-war life.
A Killing For The Hawks by Frederick E. Smith. A 1966 novel about a RFC squadron that flew Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5as.
Charlotte Sometimes (1969), second in Penelope Farmer's Aviary Hall series, features a young girl who switches between living in Britain at the end of the war, and in boarding school in 1963. The book does, in fact, mention the flu - it is revealed to have killed an unseen but nonetheless crucial character.
The novel Goshawk Squadron (1971) by Derek Robinson deconstructs the popular view of World War One air combat which, rather than dueling "Knights of the Air", actually involved undertrained pilots diving out of the sun and machine-gunning their opponent in the back before he had a chance to defend himself. War Story(1987) and Hornet's Sting (1999) by the same author have a similar setting.
The novel Strange Meeting (1971) by Susan Hill, title taken from a Wilfred Owen poem, is about the friendship between two British officers on the front line.
British author Pat Barker has written three award-winning novels that form her World War I trilogy, The Regeneration Trilogy (1991-1995): Regeneration,The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road. The novels are chock full of history and real-life characters, including the poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves. The first novel was turned into a movie, released in 1997 and known as Regeneration in the UK and Behind the Lines in the US.
Birdsong (1993) by Sebastian Faulks, widely considered one of the great WWI novels. It describes the horrors of trench warfare, through the eyes of troubled young officer Stephen Wraysford and of his men.
Harry Turtledove's Great WarAlternate History trilogy (1998-2000, part of his larger Timeline-191 series) pits the United States of America, Germany and Austria-Hungary against Britain, France, and the Confederate States of America. Among other differences, the October Revolution fails, and Russia is still a monarchy after the war. For that matter, so are Germany, Austria, and Mexico.
In recent years, Turtledove has also penned a Young AdultAlternate History series called Crosstime Traffic. Its second novel, Curious Notions (2004), is set in the late 21st century of a world where the Central Powers managed to successfully pull off the Schlieffen Plan and eventually won World War I.
Though it doesn't take place during the war, in The Dresden Files (2000-) it turns out that World War One was actually arranged by a very, very powerful necromancer by the name of Kemmler who apparently spent two centuries quietly setting everything up. Kemmler was implied to be a veryBig Bad, who took several attempts to kill before it finally stuck - and that took the combined forces of the White Council to pull off.
Unnatural Issue, also in the same series (based on the story Donkeyskin), has the main character sent to France to escape her necromancer father shortly before World War One starts.
Kate Cary's unofficial sequel to Dracula, Bloodline (2006), starts off in Northern France during the war. The main characters, John Shaw, Quincey Harker, and Mary Seward, are a lieutenant, captain, and nurse, respectively, for the British.
The Blindness of the Heart (Die Mittagsfrau, 2007) by Julia Franck spans both world wars; Martha and Helene's father loses his leg and eventually dies from the complications in the war, and it affects their lives in all manner of other ways.
The French half of Divisadero (2007), a novel by Michael Ondaatje.
Ken Follett's Fall of Giants (2010), a Door Stopper novel, tells the story of the war (and other important events, like the Russian Revolution) through the eyes of several different individuals: British, Russians, Germans, Americans, some being aristocrats, others being working class people.
Lord Dunsany wrote Tales of War based on his experiences in the trenches, focusing on the desolation of the Western Front mixed with a stiff measure of anti-Kaiser propagandizing.
Erwin Rommel's Infanterie Grieft an (Infantry Attacks) recounts his experiences over the course of the war, from mobilisation and the early fighting in France to the Carpathians and the Italian front. These experiences would shape his tactics in the next war.
A major section of Jan Guillou's The Bridge Builders takes place during WWI, mostly following German soldiers in the East African Campaign, but also showing how civilians in Norway are affected by the war.
Johnny and the Dead, the second book in the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy by Terry Pratchett, features an elderly British soldier who was actually named Tommy Atkins, who on his death joins the rest of the Blackbury Pals' Battalion. The Author's Note at the back says there really were Pals' Battalions, and they really were a horribly innocent way of ensuring all the young men from a given area would be killed at once.
Live Action TV
Fighting in the Great War made Young Indiana Jones the jaded and cynical man that he came to be by the 1930's.
A series of arcs in the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles TV series is set during The Great War and Indy even attends the signing of the Treaty Of Versailles with appearances by T.E. Lawrence, Adolf Hitler and the future Chairman Mao!
While most of the episode is set a year before, the Doctor Who episode "The Family of Blood" (based on the Doctor Who New Adventures novel Human Nature) features two of the students from the episode's school fighting and surviving in the trenches of the war.
Colonel Potter in M*A*S*H fought in World War One after lying about his age at 16 in order to get in the Army. Note that if this is the case, Potter could be no older than 52 at the end of the Korean War; a far cry from actor Harry Morgan's 68 years.
Series 2 of Downton Abbey is set during the war and immediately after. The ways people responded to the war are explored in detail:
Thomas tries to get a cushy assignment by joining the medical corps voluntarily before the war; he ends up getting assigned to France anyway and engineers to have his hand shot to get reassigned back to England.
Matthew serves as an officer in France, with William eventually (eagerly) joining up as well and serving as his batman. Matthew also does recruitment across Northern England. Both are injured at Amiens; William succumbs to his injuries weeks later.
Lord Grantham, a veteran of the Second Boer War, is frustrated his military position in the War is purely ceremonial.
The Crawley ladies turn Downton into a convalescent home for officers; in the meantime, Isobel busies herself with refugee work in France as well as administering the hospital and home.
Mrs Byrd, Isobel's cook, creates a soup kitchen for the enlisted war wounded.
Birdsong, an adaptation of the book by Sebastian Faulks.
The BBC's series Wings was about the lives of pilots and observers in the Royal Flying corps. Beginning in 1915, it focuses on the development of air combat tactics, the poor performance of British fighters in comparison to their German counterparts, and the changes in social norms that the war brought about.
Music/Swedish band Sabaton has several songs that deal with the horrors of the Great War, some of the best known being The Price Of A Mile and Cliffs of Gallipoli.
1916 by Motörhead is a ballad from the perspective of a soldier fighting in it.
The Zombies' song "Butcher's Tale (Western Front, 1914)" gives gruesome detail to the trench warfare, commenting on both shell shock and the strange dichotomy between "God and Country." "And the preacher in his pulpit / Sermons 'Go and fight, do what is right!' / But he don't have to hear these guns / And I bet he sleeps at night."
And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda by Eric Bogle is about a young Australian soldier who is maimed at the Battle of Gallipoli.
In another song by Bogle, "No Man's Land" (also called "The Green Fields of France" and what the Dropkick Murphysmade famous) the narrator is reflecting on the grave of a young man who died in France during World War I.
Christmas In The Trenches, a song by John McCutcheon, based on the true stories of truces between different groups of opposing entrenched forces on the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914, with the soldiers singing carols, exchanging gifts, and playing soccer in No Man's Land. (This would also inspire the film Joyeux Noel, above.) (Though later years would see similar truces, due to high command on both sides being upset when they heard it, they were not nearly so widespread as before.)
The originator of many of the tropes seen in World War One fiction is the stage play Journey's End, written a few years after the war by a British officer. It's actually a lot funnier than most of its imitators. (Interestingly, it subverts the usual tropes about First World War officers by showing one who's been promoted from the "other ranks" - which happened in Real Life a great deal more often than it's shown in fiction.)
Queensland tourist attraction Australian Outback Adventure (a dinner-and-a-show kind of deal), originally just a mish-mash of different stereotypes and Australian bush lore, has started recently performing a show called "Heroes of the Light Horse", based on the aforementioned battle in Palestine.
Special note : One weird thing about the representation of WWI in games is that... well, there aren't many WWI titles in general, which is particularly strange when compared with the more numerous representations in other media. Some gamers and game critics blame this on the somewhat more static nature of the war or the ignorance of developers and most gamers, who often assume that "WWI = muddy and "unmoving" western front". That being said, this might be slowly changing.
Eternal Darkness has a chapter that takes place in a church-turned-hospital in 1916 France. The premise of the chapter is that the Ancients and Pious Augustus instigated the war so the amount of people who died in the war would inevitably speed up the unleashing of the respective ancient (and keep the artifact guardian in check, apparently consuming far more than can be provided).
Company of Heroes has a total conversion Game Mod for World War I - The Great War 1918, keeping the same cover and territory-point mechanics from the base game but changing it otherwise to reflect the Great War (such as having trenches, poison gas, officer mechanics for both sides to make heavy use of, and adding melee combat). It currently includes British Expeditionary Force and the German Empire as 'Allied' and 'Axis' factions respectively, and is working to add the French Army as another 'Allied' faction.
Origin's Wings Of Glory, using the same engine as their earlier Strike Commander, is set in a British aerodrome in France during WWI with an American volunteer pilot as the Player Character.
Several of the most realistic air combat simulations on the market are set in WWI, such as Over Flanders Fields, where the player joins the squadron and side of their choice and continues to fly until their character is killed. And the sim points out that the objective is not to "win" but to survive - the seventeen hours that was the average flight time of a new pilot.
NecroVisioN is a horror FPS set in 1917 on the most war-torn parts of the Western front. The game starts off fairly normal, but the protagonist soon discovers a MasqueradeDark World hidden (literally) under the surface of the war...
Clive Barker's Undying is set immediately after the war. The protagonist, Patrick Galloway, is a veteran from one of the Irish regiments on the western front.
The MMOFPS Verdun is in open beta and set for release in Q3 of 2013. It is a squad-based online multiplayer FPS that will allow the player to fight as any of the factions present in the Battle of Verdun.
Wings allows playing as either an Entente or German fighter pilot.
As testament to either the failings of the game engines or the sheer scale of how many mistakes and complex factors lead to the war, it is nearly impossible to recreate the circumstances of this war in any version of Civilization but it has been attempted on numerous public forums. Whether or not one agrees with this assessment, the important part is that one has to actively try to bring the situation about.
Valiant Hearts is set on the Western Front from 1914 to late 1917 (ending roughly when the USA enters the war). Notable for being a cartoony sidescrolling puzzle-adventure game and yet probably treating the war with more seriousness and respect than basically any video game for any war ever has.
Red Dead Redemption has a Playable Epilogue that takes place in 1914, just after the outbreak of the conflict in Europe. It doesn't really come into play much, but Jack can read a newspaper that also briefly covers the start of the war, with the journalist not even trying to pretend to understand what's going on, but noting that America has wisely decided to stay out of it and is even promoting peace by selling weapons to both sides.
The Word Weary features a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that takes place during the Russian Revolution of 1917. The premise of the game comes from Germany's efforts to take Russia out of the war by financing Vladimir Lenin's activities during his time in exile in Zurich and his entrance back into Russia. The main characters play mercenaries hired by Germany charged with keeping Lenin safe.