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 duelling, 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 (70000 British soldiers were initially mobilized in 1914, they were 800000 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 Allied battle plans for 1919 were apparently very close to blitzkrieg, but the war ended first. The Western Allied 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 Western Allied 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 north of Venice 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 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 more democratic state. 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 Princep (the man who assassinated the Archduke and Archdutchess) 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 now 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 was 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, 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.
The Austrians' botched invasion of tiny and hilly-to-mountainous Serbia saw their only-slightly-more-numerous force devastated by the tiny Balkan state's artillery and routed.note Austria-Hungary's only plan for a war, like Germany's, was very constrictive. It involved a war with Serbia and Russia, 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 might 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. 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.
Germany's plan, as stated, was to quickly take out France before Russia could mobilise and then turn to face the Russians, something known as the Schlieffen Plan. To take out France quick enough (avoiding French frontier defences on their mutual border), Germany had to go through Belgium — a neutral country. Germany planned to just walk through Belgium, promising that they'd leave the Belgians alone. But those Belgians weren't having any of that, so they resisted. While terribly outgunned, at the very least tying up resources in Belgium did manage to slow Germany down a bit. 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, Germany's Military didn't think it was even possible that Britain would enter the war and did not have plans for this contingency, which rather hurt them - especially at sea.
The Ottoman Empire entered the allied 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 loosing the transports. Milne eventually gets his act together and trails Souchon all the way to Sicily where Souchon was getting coal from 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 handfull 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 unwittingly aligned themselves against their old allies, the Germans, who soon trounced France and became 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 Britain was in no way obligated to defend Belgium, and was almost guaranteed not to in the advent of French war on Belgium on account of their shared borders, not to mention the threat that Russia posed to British Asia. 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 - a largely unfounded one, as Austria and Germany's ambitions were rather more modest than many (have subsequently) imagined - combined to make entering the war on the side of France and Russia look like a good idea.
The Western Allies, 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 perforce ended there) and entrenchment of lines.
America, while Britain's ally, stayed out of the war at this point for a number of reasons including but not limited to: a 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 casualty numbers from their Civil War, a hesitancy over the loyalty of German immigrants, and a perceived lack of relevance (i.e, "What does it matter to us if Europe shoots itself up?") Despite this surface neutrality, however, America secretly shipped munitions and other supplies to Britain and the other Allies almost from day one. This didn't slip past Germany, which partially started unrestricted submarine warfare for this reason—the Lusitania's sinking, which so enraged Americans, was mainly done to take out the piles of munitions it was carrying to Europe. To anyone who cared to look, it was clear what side the U.S. was rooting for.
The Eastern Front
Romania entered the war on the Allied side in 1916 hoping to gain the largely ethnic Romanian territory of Transylvanianote The Allies are now believed to have just promised this to get Romania into 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 of Versailles-palace).,and promptly got defeated thanks to poor training, horrible planning and (historically completely understandable) distrust of Russia; the Japanese came in on the Allied side because of treaty obligations with Britain in late 1914, and made a good showing in every theater in which they were involved, especially in the Far Eastern and Mediterranean theaters. Thanks to an incredibly blotched opening-move by Prime Minister Conradnote 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. Tiny and highly-militarised - from its recent experiences in the Balkan Wars fighting the Ottomans and other Balkan states - Serbia held off an Austro-Hungarian force half again its size before being crushed by German-led Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian force. British, German, French and Belgian armies chased each other all over Africa. Brazil joined the Allies and her navy went sub-hunting in the Atlantic. The British Empire was still going, so men from Ireland, Canadanote a few US citizens who didn't care for the US government's non-interventionist policy fled to Canada to get into the war, which fifty-some years later would be a bit ironic, Newfoundland (then a separate Dominion), South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India and elsewhere all fought in France, not to mention the millions of Senegalese, Algerians, Moroccans and so on in the French army. The British drove the Turks out of Arabia and the Holy Land and decided it would be a great idea to split it up into countries like Iraq, Kuwait, Syria and Lebanon. That worked out slightly better than Gallipoli, a textbook example of a military fiasco and A Simple Plan going horribly wrong, which was planned by Winston Churchill and very nearly ended his career.
Russia did very badly; 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 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.
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 less than a tenth as long. 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. 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.
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, legally, doing so was 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 Allies, having recognised 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'.
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.
The longest running theatre of the war besides Europe was in Africa, as the British and French tried to cut off Germany from its colonies. Most fell easily and quickly, but the story was different in German East Africa (now Burundi, Rwanda and most of Tanzania). German commander Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck managed to tie down 300,000 Allied troops with a far smaller force of 14,000, mostly made of African soldiers. 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.
A recent revisionist theory (or rather a once popular but long forgotten one) is (re-)emerging that the most decisive theatre was not on land at all but at sea. Pre-war British theory was based on the idea of the naval blockade, essentially that Britain could use its most powerful weapon (the largest navy in the world) to strangle Germany. Germany depended heavily on overseas trade, indeed she possessed the second largest merchant fleet in the world in 1914, and without vital materials she could not go on note Germany also had an extremely formidable navy, built at the Kaiser's insistance to keep the Rhineland's steel- and armaments-manufacturing output ticking over at incredibly high levels and thereby keeping unemployment down, and to impress his friends and relations in the British court - many of whom had served in the navy. This new German fleet had the opposite effect and instead scared the British into completely changing their plan into the blockade that so damaged German shipping.. As it happened the British underestimated the German capacity to find alternative sources of material, but the basic idea was sound: food (a third of which had been imported before 1914) could be grown in Germany, but this was only a partial solution — and a short term one as Germany began to run out of even these essentials and the country starved. German chemists invented ersatz bread, ersatz coffee, ersatz beverages and many other ersatzes, but this wasn't a solution that made people happy. It has been argued that this (rather than any specific military defeat) is what broke the German will to continue the war. At the very least it led to the reckless gamble of unrestricted submarine warfare, which brought the US into the war.
The most famous naval battle of the war, the Battle of Jutland in May 1916 is still hotly contested. 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. This was arguably Germany's strategy - they knew Britain depended on on a two power standard (having as many ships as the next two greatest combined) so they thought they just needed enough to threaten any individual nation's balance of power, and so Britain wouldn't enter the war or engage in battle if the German fleet was merely large enough to ruin that. Interestingly the German revolution began with disaffected sailors of the High Seas Fleet, rather than the soldiers who saw much more action and heavier losses. In other, smaller naval engagements, such as the Battle of Dogger Bank and the Battles of Helgoland, the British generally came out on top.
In the rest of the world, the German East Asia Squadron scored a number of early victories before being mopped up by the Allies. 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 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 thingsto 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.
Eventually, the German tactics of allowing their submarines to sink any ship they wanted, whoever it belonged to — along with a botched plot to convince Mexico to invade the USnote a.k.a. the Zimmerman Telegram. 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. — annoyed the Americans so much that they got involved too (though volunteers had been joining the British, French, and Italian forces throughout). The Germans had one more big push in the Spring of 1918 to try and win before the Yanks arrived in numbers — they broke through the lines into the open country beyond and it looked for a while as if they might actually do it. But in the end they ran out of steamnote At least partly because the Operational plan had been left to the corps commanders and not determined by HQ, with the result that many of the breakthroughs were a waste of resources as they detracted from the main thrust of the offensive and the French, newly-arrived Americans, British, Canadians and ANZACs (in order of size) pushed them right back across the lines and won the war. Just.
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 Allies 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 Andre Durkheim, a promising young linguist and the son and protegee of the notable sociologist Emile Durkheim. Sent to the Belgian front in late 1915, Andre 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 protegees 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, French socialist politician, tried even into the later days of August to keep France out of the war. Tragically, he was eventually assassinated for his pacifist beliefs, which were widely unpopular and viewed as unpatriotic. This probably guaranteed French involvement; the Second Socialist International had successfully kept several regional wars from becoming more general in the decade prior.
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 WW 1 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 WW 2 was their inability to replace pilot losses. Admittedly this is a simplification as there are entire books on the subject.
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 courageaous 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.
The really interesting thing is that the US, whose leader had probably the worst opinion of black people—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 by the facts that everyone on the front was cannon fodder and that colonial troops were a small minority of engaged infantry.
The Blind Leading the Blind: Many generals, particularly in Britain, were chosen not because of any particular talent, but because of their ability to play politics. This led to some pretty bad commanders who knew almost nothing about commanding large bodies of troops or about modern warfare.
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 a 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 allied offensive would mean disaster for Britain.
Crowning Moment of Awesome: The German military strategy for the start of WWI, named the Schlieffen Plan after its creator Field-Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, involved a sweeping attack that bypassed the formidable French defences in Alsace-Lorraine to attack via neutral Belgium, and knock Britain and France out of a war by taking Paris (effectively beating France), Dunkirk and Calais (cutting the British off from the mainland) - leaving Germany to fight (and probably beat) Russia alone. They needed this to take a maximum of six weeks - and the crucial element of that was that the outnumbered (reportedly more than 10:1), out-skilled, poorly-commanded and under-equipped Belgian army would simply surrender and let the Germans through. When the Germans came to Belgium, they found King Albert I in personal command of the full Belgian Army, ready to hold them off for a crucial three months - something that, though all too often forgotten, was probably the single most important reason the Germans didn't win the war. The icing on the cake? When the Germans actually sent King Albert the ultimatum demanding that his men step aside and let the German army 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 Allies broke through the Macedonian Front and the Western Allied 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 Allies. According to German general Ludendorff, the massive Oh Crap caused by the Austro-Hungarian collapse caused Germany to sue for peace instead than continue 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 of German sappers captured the fort without firing a shot. By contrast, the French lost nearly 100,000 men recapturing it the following October.
As opposed to Douaumont, the defense of the fort of Vaux was very much this for the French. After surrendering the fort, its men 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 Allied 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." (Oh well, at least it's not boring.)
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 Allied side, the Brusilov Offensive (Russia), Megiddo (Palestine Front), Vittorio Veneto (Italy) and Meuse-Argonne (Western Front) 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 German suffered zero.
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 Allies were even more surprised when the Germans deployed poison gas. Also, tanks was 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.
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 mdoern 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 then military. 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.
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.
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 Allies 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. 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.)
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 incredibly difficult for infantry to breach, while the second (combined with the machine gun) rendered infantry tactics of the day obsolete. 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 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 no matter the cost or casualties. Many of the successes on the Japanese side owned much to risky and costly all-out assaults (such as seizing fortifications at the cost of hundreds if not thousands of men) as well as a "martial spirit" very reminiscent of Bushido (among other things, a belief that where Japan lacked in resources, they would make up in sheer moral willpower). This not only served as foreshadowing to what Imperial Japan would pull off a few decades later. But observers tried bringing back variants of that very same mix to Europe believing that it'd guarantee victory...with predictable and bloody results in the trenches.
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 disatrous effects, which led to trench warfare and blue outfits.
Home by Christmas: The countries involved were confident that their soldiers would come home victoriously within months, a popular belief too; the soldiers on their way to the front were cheerfully saluted and joined by the citizens for a few miles. The scenario of an industrialized meat grinder war of attrition had not been experienced in Europe yet.
Hope Springs Eternal: After the battle of the frontiers, it seemed like the Germans were unstoppable. They were pushing back the French forces at almost 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 allies 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.
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 on the side of the Allies). 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 U.S. entry into the war on the side of the Allies.
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.
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 (but not necessarily more "good") compared to the Central Powers in general. But by 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 Western Allies—Britain and France—who were of course democracies, later joined by the United States (a prototypical modern democratic republic), and counted as allies Italy (a democratic constitutional monarchy) and a number of more-or-less 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); 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.
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.
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 occured 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.
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, installation of a military dictatorship and insistence on Napoleonic tactics earned him the hate of the 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 made those Napoleonic tactics the only thing 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.
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: 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 reconoitering 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 Allied 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 at, years later, that the frontlines 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 things Tolkein saw during the war: a wretched swamp filled with the corpses of soldiers.
The details of how his WW I experience affected Tolkien's 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 excellent German engineering 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 2000, injuring over 9000, 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 totted up, it's reckoned that one ton of explosives was spent 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 officers).
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 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 Armenians of the city of Van for holding out for the Russian army to liberate them while being put under a siege because they wouldn't 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 and 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, upon hearing of its final defeat on the Senate floor, in one of his brief moments of coherence, Wilson 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, 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.
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 Allies simply scoffed at the proposal, 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 Allies 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 Józef, 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 belligerants who correctly saw that the war going to become a gigantic bloody slog lasting 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 over-looked 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 Allied Powers 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 lead 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 Allies and try to confiscate various Allied 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.
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 2 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 Russian military equipment being pretty sub-par. Malnourished and ill equiped troops were the norm in that empire.
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 manoeuvrable. 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.
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 issue 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 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.
Serial Escalation: A lot of the war was spent building bigger, badder weapons and testing them on the front. From poison gas to tanks, etc. the tools of death constantly got bigger and more effective.
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 soliders 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.
Shur Fine Guns: Two of the worst firearms ever issued to troops were seen in this war.
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 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. 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, it was abysmal, combining terrible manufacturing quality with underpowered ammunition and mechanical complexity to produce a weapon of singularly-poor reliability. Having windows cut into the magazines (to let the soldier see how much ammunition he had left) only let in more dirt and mud.
And as the US Army found, fixing one problem simply made the others worse. To overcome the somewhat disappointing power of the French round, they rechambered it in .30-06, which was indeed more powerful. Powerful enough to shake the gun apart.
The Chauchat gets a bit of a worse reputation than it deserves. While it was hardly the most reliable machine gun ever made, it did provide French and American troops with more firepower than the bolt-action rifles of the day. It also was more reliable than many post-war accounts give it credit for, due to untrained people trying to fire it - its long-recoil action needs to be held hard against the shoulder to keep it from bouncing around, otherwise it can jam, called "limp wristing". The power of the cartridge (8mm Lebel) was not underpowered, and in fact by modern standards is vastly overpowered. And while the magazine was a problem, the problem of jamming in mud was true to even the Mauser-based M1903 bolt action rifle. The trenches were not kind to any guns. So, while not stellar, the Chauchat was at least adequate.
A Simple Plan: The Schlieffen Plan. Many say it could never actually have worked whatever happened, but even despite one thing going wrong after another, the Germans did get uncomfortably close to Paris. By extension, the initial "Charge-Bangabang-Tea+ Crumpets-VICTORY!" war-plans of the Entente.
To summarize, the Schlieffen Plan was Germany's grand strategy for fighting a two-front war with both France and Russia. The idea was to deploy ~90% of the German army against France, with projections of defeating them utterly within six to eight weeks, and then redeploy the whole shebang by rail to deal with the Russians. Against France, Germany was divided into two separate flanks: The left flank would be used as Schmuck Bait to lure the French forces into the Rhineland and parts of Germany proper, while the stronger right flank would wrap around through Belgium and the Netherlands and envelop the French from the flanks, leaving the bulk of the French army surrounded and a strong German force a hop, skip, and jump away from Paris. Unfortunately for the Germans, after Schlieffen's retirement, he was replaced by Field Marshal von Moltke, who had issues with violating Dutch neutrality and with allowing France to occupy even a sliver of Germany, despite the strategic reasons for doing so. He altered the plan so as not to enter the Netherlands and redeployed over 250,000 men from the right flank to reinforce the left and the eastern front, wanting to beat the French in a stand-up fight with a minimum of detours through Belgium. Without those extra men, the German advance through Belgium and into France bogged down, leaving Germany to fight a war against France, a Belgian resistance force, the British expeditionary unit, and eventually Russia, exactly the situation the Schlieffen Plan was designed to prevent.
Schlieffen's plan was so precise that it even dictated the railroad timetables involved in moving troops in German, Belgium and France. The 6-8 weeks figure comes from an intense study of the Russian railway system.
The original plan that eventually led to Gallipoli was based on the (not entirely unreasonable) idea that the Ottoman Empire was so shaky that a force of battleships shelling Constantinople would knock the Turks out of the war. For a variety of reasons things didn't work out, but some military historians consider that the naval campaign at least had some merit.
Gallipoli—the Dardanelles operation, that is—failed because of terrible leadership from the generals on the scene. The idea was sound.
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 ships to fight alongside the exhausted Allied Powers.
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-Allied and 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 and war fatigue.
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, mostly unsubstantiated and often outright lies. Joffre in particular was guilty of this, using his lack of knowledge about the enemy to claim that they took greater losses during his offensives than they really did.
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 behmothicChar 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 presonally used during the war and saw service until the end of the Second World War.
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 resulted in little more than setting up an even worse world war.
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 tendence to pull insane acts and survive (including flying all the way from Italy to Vienna in a bomber and drop 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 (see A Simple Plan for an accurate description) showed that with the combination of extra troops on Germany's right flank and the use of the Netherlands' excellent rail infrastructure the plan might have succeeded.
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 Allied 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.
Artistic License - Economics: Germany's strategy for paying for the war, instead of increasing wartime taxes and other such things that the other countries did? Just print money. This left the Germans with a useless form of currency, with the life savings of a retired citizen barely enough to cover a table. People were using marks as fuel for their fires or wallpaper because there was nothing else they could do with them.
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 allies: 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.
And yet it gets everything wrong, where history's concerned.
To clarify this remark; the film somehow manages to make the French Military of World War One look like the Hollywood History version of the World War II Soviets by blowing a few real life but relatively minor incidents waaaaaay out of proportion and conveniently ignoring all the counter evidence.
The Big Parade. 1925 silent; wonderful story about a callow rich boy who joins the Army, falls in love with a French girl, then sees the hell of combat...
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 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 Allied 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 a hero 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 WW 1 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.
1940s war movie The Fighting 69th starring James Cagney.
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.
Oh! What A Lovely War.
A Bear Named Winnie, chronicling the life of the original Winnipeg/Winnie the black bear, the bear that eventually inspired A. A. Milne to create Winnie-the-Pooh.
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 defigured 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.
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 Thirty-Nine 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 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 (eg. 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. Haek never tried to hide the fact that the novel was largely autobiographical. His avatar, however, was not vejk, 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 succesfully pull off the the Schlieffen Plan and eventually won World War One.
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 Door Stopper novel Fall of Giants (2010) 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.
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 T.V. 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.
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.
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 made more famous by the Dropkick Murphys) 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 Mc Cutcheon, 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).
Snoopy Vs the Red Baron takes place here, although the technology is... not quite the same.
In fact, combat flight sims are likely the most common type of game based on this war. You can find several examples on the Simulation Game page.
The most famous WWI flight sim games are probably Sierra's older Red Baron series.
There is also an upcoming World War One Game Mod for IL-2 Sturmovik, known under the charming working title Canvas Knights.
Sadly, this one has been recently moved to another game engine.
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 ww1, 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.
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.
The Word Weary features a Dungeons and 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.