Towards the end of The Edwardian Era, between 1914-1918, a war broke out between two alliances: the French-led Entente Cordiale (French for "Cordial Agreement") and the German-led Central Powers.note These two power blocs comprised the richest and most powerful empires and nation-states on earth, commanding empires in Europe and abroad, leading to the biggest, bloodiest, most expensive, most disruptive, most damaging and most traumatizing war the world had ever seen. It left millions dead, maimed, shell-shocked, dispossessed, impoverished, starving and bitter. For large numbers of people around the word and across the political spectrum, it forever shattered the notion that War Is Glorious: new technologies of warfare unleashed violence on the human body and mind on such a scale and in such a mass-produced, industrial manner that it could no longer be romanticized, downplayed, or swept under the carpet the way it had been by nation states and their propaganda machines in previous wars.
The nature of the war is such that its end is usually celebrated in multiple countries as Armistice Day, or ceasefire, rather than victory. Most were grateful the war finally ended and that the ones who survived could go home, with the really lucky ones going back uninjured. The war is considered to be the true beginning of The 20th Century, severing continuity with the conformity, stability, and—in retrospect—the comforting illusions of progress and decency that people ascribed to European civilization. Four of Europe's great empires (Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary, Tsarist Russia, Ottoman Empire) cracked apart, resulting in the liberation and formation of new nations, culminating in a revolution of a size and scale not seen since 1789. The empires and nations that did come out status quo ante bellum, such as The British Empire and The French Colonial Empire found their power and uncontested influence weakened and challenged, both at home and in their colonies. It marked the beginning of the end of the age of empires that had defined the 19th Century, with the United States of America taking the role of a global leader for the first time, under President Woodrow Wilson.
Formerly known as "The Great War" or "The World War," and poetically, "The War to End All Wars." Perhaps surprisingly, even the term "The First World War" was applied quite early, not in the sense of anticipation of a second, but rather as a descriptor of it being the first time in history that something like this had happened. After the sequel broke out, the term "The First World War" naturally became standard, this time with full reference to the second. The title "the Great War" had previously been applied to The Napoleonic Wars. The end of that conflict, followed by the Concert at Vienna in 1814—1815 created a Balance of Power that lasted for almost exactly a hundred years. The hope of the Concert was to contain the specter of revolution that they saw as a threat to national and domestic stability. The gradual fracturing of that alliance towards the end of the century ultimately led to the return of revolution and domestic and national instability that in Europe would not heal until the fall of the USSR. In the case of other parts of the world affected by the war, chiefly the Middle East, that had once formed part of the Ottoman Empire, that instability still remains and persists well into the 21st Century, with no sign of ebbing for several decades past the already-past centennial of armistice.
This was quite possibly the most unpopular widespread conflict in the history of civilization in hindsightnote . In terms of the Anglosphere's least favorite wars, it perhaps comes a close second to The Vietnam War, and by some measures manages to beat Algeria in the Francosphere (when the speaker knows, and can bear, to bring the latter up). In hindsight, the international agreement that brought an end to the war has come to be dubbed "the peace to end all peaces."
- 1914—On June 28, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Imperial throne of Austria-Hungary, is assassinated in Sarajevo by Serbian terrorists.
- July 28—Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbianote , Russia declares war on Austria-Hungarynote , on 26 July Russia begins secret mobilization of her reserve-troopsnote
- German mobilization is markedly slower, needing 17 days, and even with all its reserves the German army is only half the size of the Russian—without her reserves, the German army is only 1/3 the size. That doesn't even begin to cover the way that France has an army only a little bit smaller than Germany's (4/5 the size including reserves), mobilizes faster than Germany can, and will support Russia (by attacking Germany) in any war between the two .
- Italy refuses to come to Austria-Hungary's aid note .
- Germany declares war on Russia in support of Austria-Hungary, as Kaiser Wilhelm had promised to support Austria-Hungary no matter what. On 1 August France and Germany mobilize their reserves simultaneously, Germany's mobilization coming with a formal declaration of war (upon France, Belgium, and Luxembourg). Britain declares war upon Germanynote , and members of the British Commonwealth - India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, among others - follow suit.
- Russia launches its East Prussian offensive with 400k, France executes Plan XVII with c.600k—French offensive into Germany, Luxembourg, and southern Belgium to preempt Germany's Aufmarsch Inote
- However a decisive blow against the French could even make subsequent invasion of France possible—defeating France would end French raiding of German shipping and leave Germany to face a two-plus year war with Russia, or maybe a white peace . Aufmarsch I entails an invasion of (northern) Belgium and Luxembourg with c.700k troops to seek a 'decisive battle' with the French Army. The French and Russian armies, and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 50k troops were defeatednote The German force subsequently disobeys orders to continue moving north-west and instead pursues the fleeing French forces south-west.
- In Prussia a dedicated German defense force of 200k makes use of railways (as per meticulous prewar planning and training) to mass against a Russian Army of 200k advancing north from Russian Poland and attack it at Tannenburg—the Russian force takes heavy losses. The German force then uses the rail network to re-group and meet up with 20k troops transferred from France, mass, and launch counter-offensive against a second Russian force of 200k advancing west from Lithuania at Masurian Lakes. After the battle, though, German forces were too weak and exhausted to pursue them into Lithuania proper, where the freshly-mobilized Russian Reserve Army of c.200k is on the defensive note . The German army opportunistically hounds the southward retreat of French forces, until their pursuit grinds to a halt east of Paris on river Marne note .
- German logistics-horses in general are exhausted and overworked, in need of rest and treatment to check their exponentially increasing death-rate. The German army is not as well-equipped with non-rail transport as the French, as the assumption of prewar planning was that Germany would be on the defensive in at least the initial stage of a war with France and Russia. Conversely, the French army is well-equipped with non-rail transport due to a provision of Plan XVII for the invasion of Belgian and German territory in support of Russia.
- The Austro-Hungarian mobilization was botched from the start—fewer than 100k soldiers were assigned to the Serbian offensive (versus a Serbian army of 60k) and their 800k-man offensive against Russia was delayed long enough for Russia to both invade Germany and execute a successful defense with a force of c. 1.5 million.
- The Ottoman Empire is brought into the war by an opportunistic false flag operation orchestrated by Germany note Russia wants the greater influence over the Balkans that would come with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and notes that Britain will be able to help out by attacking the Ottomans directly (and they might even end up doing most of the work), so this means war!
- The Royal Navy imposes a 'distant blockade' of German sea-trade between Scotland and Norway, but German-Scandinavian trade continuesnote .
- Chaos on the stock markets and in the general European economy as half of the continent stops trading with itself. German surface-raiders—many disguised as fast merchant shipsnote —wreak minor havoc among Entente shipping.
- 1915—The need for greater mobilization of economic resources is recognized by all combatants as their forces are hamstrung by extremely weak logistics, a critical lack of artillery ammunition and grenades, and a lack of 'heavy artillery' to use against the enemy's shorter-ranged 'light' and 'medium' artillery. There is also a failure to note how artillery guns and infantry weapons wear out after continuous use, creating shortages upon shortages.
- All attempts at offensive operations on the Franco-German front, chiefly executed by French forces, fail due to poor artillery-infantry co-ordination and the effects of enemy artillery. Germany and Austria-Hungary make a concerted effort to knock Serbia and Russia out of the war within the year, but ultimately fail despite limited success in taking Serbia and Poland — Russia's inferior infrastructure (including severe shortages of bullets, guns and boots for their troops) and inferiority in horses means the logistical advantage lies with the Russian army, offsetting both the Germans' greater combat-efficiency and the poor state of Russian planning and communications. Despite heavy losses Russian forces fall back in good order from Poland to a line along the Dvina river and the Pripyet Marshes, shortening the front and also losing the 'dead weight' of ethnic-Polish forces reluctant to fight and eager to surrender. Losses of artillery assets in particular by Russian forces cause the Russian government to adopt a dangerously over-extensive program of mobilization exacerbated by her total economic isolation, due to the loss of virtually all international trade.
- A Russian counter-offensive repels the Ottomans' Georgian offensive with such heavy losses that the back of the Ottoman army is believed broken—a Franco-Commonwealth force organized by the head of Britain's Royal Navy (Winston Churchill) launches an amphibious offensive to force the Dardanelles and re-open sea trade in April. This amphibious offensive fails and French, British and Commonwealth forces (Australian, New Zealand and Indian) launch a land offensive that results in a sideshow stalemate that echoes the Western Front on a smaller scale, to no gains. The Dardanelles campaign ends with an evacuation of Entente forces in late 1916 and early 1917. The Germans assist the Ottoman defense. Future leader of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) makes his name in part during this campaign.
- The last of the German surface raiders are destroyed, but sporadic submarine (u-boat) attacks continue. German colonies are occupied, but isolated resistance continues. Conscription is used to build British and some Commonwealth forces up to levels where they can relieve pressure on Franco-Russian manpower reserves. The British blockade of Scandinavia is now complete, with the major ports mined and all shipping intercepted. The Entente score a diplomatic coup as Italy is persuaded to join them with promises of large strips of Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman territory; Italy declares war on Austria-Hungary on 24/5/1915 but the alpine terrain of the border is so rough and so narrow that Italian offensive operations prove impossible.
- 1916—Germany recognizes need to 'break' France before Russia and The Commonwealth can fully mobilize their resources, as Germany has reached limits of own manpower+industrial mobilization and Austria-Hungarian society and government visibly disintegrating under strain of war. Under Chief of Staff Falkenhayn, strategy of simply exhausting France's manpower reserves by using Germany's artillery superiority to decimate them with minimal German losses ('artillery destruction' tactics) decided upon, employed in battle at Verdun starting 21/2/1916—sector of front where French rail-supply poor, and German good. Not as effective as hoped— German Fifth Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm decides of own initiative to attempt to capture Verdun "regardless of losses" and so battle turns into a battle of attrition, an indecisive back-and-forth slug-festnote . French Army also has world's largest pool of motor-transport, not as reliant on rail-supply as expected.
- Entente had already agreed upon simultaneous summer offensives in summer of 1916 to cover entry of Rumania and Italy into war on Entente's side, but French insist these be launched as soon as possible to take pressure off Verdun. Russian Northern Front's Lake Naroch offensive (18/3/1916-30/3/1916) attempts to copy German 'artillery destruction' tactics to destroy enemy tactical defenses but fails horribly, drawing no German forces from Verdun. Russian Southern Front under Brusilov (4/6/1916-20/9/1916) makes effective concentration and use of forces, and light 'suppressive' artillery bombardments to break through Austro-Hungarian lines and effectively exhaust Austro-Hungarian reserves for lesser relative cost to Russian Army, but Russian Army logistics (despite greater resources) badly-managed and offensive cannot be sustained—success in that German reserves needed to stabilize front.
- Franco-Commonwealth offensive at Somme (1/7/1916-18/11/1916) also attempts to use German 'destruction' tactics, but poor infantry-artillery co-ordination by inexperienced Commonwealth forces and poor infantry tactics, training, experience, and armament, as well as superior German defenses note result in high losses among non-French troops. note
- Offensive still succeeds in diverting German reserves, aiding success of small French counter-offensive at Verdun which makes successful use of 'destruction' tactics. German counter-offensive stabilizes front opposite Brusilov and Germany assumes command over all Austro-Hungarian forces in the east. German Fleet'snote attempt to break blockade and/or destroy British Fleet in decisive battle fails—31/5/1916 to 1/6/1916 Battle Of Jutland indecisive, but British strategic victory in remaining larger than the German fleet and keeping it bottled up in port for the rest of the war, blockade continues. Russian war-production peaks, but results in urban famine in Moscow and Saint Petersburg as lack of consumer goods in economy means farmers are no longer selling their grain—Austria-Hungary beginning to suffer same problem.
- 1917—In March, Urban famine in St. Petersburg and Moscow causes coup against Tsar, self-governing communes rise up in Russian urban centres and middle class+elite establish unelected 'Provisional Government'—uneasy alliance between two, but both agree to mutually piss off when they elect a government by universal vote at a later date. Germany decides to use submarine fleet against 'all' shipping, USA uses this as casus belli and joins the Entente, but needs almost a year to build up and train an Expeditionary Force. German forces adopt 'defence in depth' tactics first experimented with during Somme offensive, abandoning 'trench lines' in favor of scattered 'strong points' and 'outposts' throughout a much deeper (6km vs 3km) defense zone and using 'reverse slopes' to reduce vulnerability to artillery fire — also moving artillery back and concealing it to protect it from enemy artillery fire.
- Commonwealth forces use their improved artillery-infantry cooperation, and improved artillery ranging tactics, to pioneer a new 'successive breakthrough' operational/campaign strategy which is fundamentally flawed from its inception due to its continued use of 'artillery destruction' tactics note , which critically overworks the engineering+logistics services.
- French Army and society also tire of demoralizing 'attrition warfare' strategy and insists upon alternative—experimental 'breakthrough strategy' also promising operation/campaign breakthrough after successive tactical victories produced by 'artillery destruction' tactics championed by junior commander Nivelle, which they are promised will end war quickly. Its dismal failure with even worse losses to no effectnote is deeply demoralizing, causes c.45% of French Army to mutiny—units collectively refuse to do anything but hold their current positions and defend themselves until a system of 'leave' is organized, they are given safe and decent rations, and Army Command 'gets its act together'.
- Italian Army of 400k suffers devastating tactical defeat by Central Powers army of 350k at Caporetto—Commonwealth offensives aborted as forces rushed to help stabilize Italian front, defeat triggers re-structuring of Italian Army at tactical/battlefield level.
- Rumania brought into war on Entente side—but army easily defeated and country quickly occupied, its petroleum and grain resources aid the Central Powers' war effort.
- After failure of offensive against German-led forces by unreformed Russian Army, Russian Army also mutinies—not 100% clear what troops want, but general consensus is they want the elections now, not later. In November elections held and won by rural-based Social-Democratic Party with 60% of vote, but urban Russian Communist Party arrests all delegates when they attempt to meet and declares that The Russian Empire has been dissolved, orders all Russian troops to disperse and return home. The German-Habsburg armies take virtually no losses when they sweep them aside and occupy The Baltic States, Belorussia, and Ukraine—thereby securing enough grain to avert famine for another year.
- 1918—Russian Communist Party scrambles to form the 'Red Army'—regular military force with ultra-modern structure built using core of old General Staff and cream of officer corps. But Red Army too small and too weak to prevent Central Powers from advancing further, Communist Party negotiates with Germany and cedes all occupied territory to Germany in 5/3/1918 Treaty Of Brest Litovsk; the Russian front of WWI segues seamlessly into the Russian Civil War. 200k German and Habsburg troops remain to occupy territory, remaining 500k transferred to Western Front. c. 1.5 million German troops used in series of attacks on Entente lines starting 21/3/1918. It was key for this transfer and attack to happen before the United States managed to bring its army across to bolster the Entente.
- German artillery has achieved tactical perfection under Colonel Bruchmüller, setting a new standard (used to this day) for the concentration and co-ordination of artillery assets and tactics to aid new infantry 'infiltration' tactics (also used to this day). German operational understanding, on the other hand, extraordinarily poor not least due to lack of focus on higher-level logistics and personal prejudices of offensives' architect, General Ludendorffnote .
- Commonwealth performance relatively poor due to focus on defending logistically-critical coastal sector (instead of British southern sector, where British and French forces overlap), utter inexperience in defensive operations (have not conducted a single defensive campaign in the entire war), and incomplete copying of German 'defense in depth' tactics (defensive works only half-built and most units do not understand how to use them). German offensives a total failure by 5/4/1918 though sporadic attacks continue for further two months, French 5th Army also successfully countering German attacks through adoption of 'defense in depth' and resulting in said tactics' adoption by all French forces by October. Urban famine in Austria-Hungary and Germany as energy value of official daily ration drops below 1600 calories (versus 800 for occupied Russia inc. Poland)—anti-war demonstrations appear, increase despite repression.
- Entente takes time for serious soul-searching and examination of German artillery, infantry, and artillery-infantry tactics very closely. Assessment is (quite rightly) that there is not much to be learned from Germans - German Operational method woeful, tactical methods only successful due to Entente disorganization. Entente has no intention of repeating German mistakes - unlike Germans, will only attempt what is physically possible (as defined by logistical considerations). Though the 'Learning Curve' theory is often touted here as why the Entente arrived at the understanding of combined-arms tactics and operational methods which they will display in the summer, the process of working it out was very complicated and came in many stops and starts. It's less of a Learning Curve and more of a Learning Fumble-And-Stumble-Up-A-Foggy-Incline.
- In August, Entente launches "Hundred Days' Offensive". Series of virtually non-stop attacks using combined arms - reconnaissance airplanes, heavy artillery, medium artillery, light artillery, tractors, combat tanks, supply tanks, light railway engines, heavy trucks, light trucks, mortars, heavy machine guns, light machine guns, rifles, grenades used by men actively trying to cooperate and work together. Increasing strain upon supply services, particularly trucks, but Entente forces never let themselves outrun their supply - willing to stop combat and give supply services attention, care, resources they need to recover. 'Death of a Thousand Cuts' as German forces constantly eroded by Entente tactical/battlefield superiority, cumulative effect devastating. Still no strategic breakthroughs, no operational encirclements— but Entente winning anyway.
- German strength failing as reinforcements are of progressively worse quality - prime manpower long since expended. German defenses weakening as German support services begin to fail under strain of ceaseless construction of new defenses. Larger and larger tactical encirclements (pockets less than 1km across) being made and more and more German troops surrendering. "Black Day of the German Army" (Ludendorff's words) on 8th of August as tactical encirclements result in surrender of c.50,000 German troops to American-Australian-British-Canadian Army under British command - irrecoverable loss of a twentieth of German front line strength in just three days, at minimal cost to Entente. Writing is very much on the wall.
- Bulgaria sues for peace with Entente in late September; Ottoman Empire surrenders on 30 October when Commonwealth forces reach modern-day Turkey, having routed last remaining Ottoman resistance. Austro-Hungarian offensive at Venice thrown into disarray by counterattack, army then 'broken' by Italian offensive including 24/10/1918-3/11/1918 battle of Vittorio Veneto—only 40k Habsburg dead, but 400k troops flee and later surrender to Italian forces (of similar size). Austria-Hungary declares cease-fire on 4/11/1918.
- On 11/11/1918, after months of civil and military unrest, Germany does same—effective at 11:00 Central European Time (CET). Fighting on Western Front ceases. Entente victorious, but have only a few thousand troops in Central and Eastern Europe—not one single functional government between Rhine and Don rivers. Shape of the peace—and Europe itself—to come unclear, but will formally be decided in conference at Versailles next year...
The origins of the first world war involve so many nations in so many languages, that historians are still trying to piece it together. The conflict was so horrific and destructive in scale that it ended up destroying the foundations of many of the leading states of the conflict. At the beginning of the war, Kaiser Wilhelm II was among the most famous figures in the world, by the end, he became, overnight, a mere footnote as a result of a revolution which broke out in Imperial Germany and the start of The Weimar Republic. The dramatic collapse, the sudden revolution, and rapid changes in governments, states, borders that followed the peace further overshadowed and buried the circumstances that led to this conflict. Likewise the new states that emerged had various political agendas. The Soviet Union for instance argued that the war was caused by Capitalism and Imperialism, and of course it suited their agendas to blame everyone including Tsarist Russia, obviously, and claim that the only option is to end all nationalism and join the international brotherhood of Communism, and welcome Communist cadres and parties in all nations. On the other side, politicians in Imperial Germany actually doctored their archives and destroyed some evidence and forged other documents. During The Roaring '20s, the Weimar Republic directly promoted either the "collective guilt" idea or that "Germany was a victim of the Entente" and was fighting defensively (even if they declared war and invaded first) and that the other nations were jealous of Germany's rise and progress. Historians with similar views (even, or especially from, America) were encouraged and directly funded in some cases, while those who questioned it were stifled and ignored, in a manner not dissimilar to the way the Confederate States manufactured and promulgated the "Lost Cause" thesis. The debate about the war was politicized in the years leading to World War II, and while it isn't as politicized and deadly today, and mercifully a more academic issue than it used to be, it's still something that sparks a lively debate. The irony in academic history is that, these days, among German academic historians, the consensus is that Imperial Germany knowingly launched into a war of aggression in 1914 while non-German historians believe that the war was a case of Poor Communication Kills, bad diplomacy, or collective guilt.
In the hundred years between 1815, the end of the Napoleonic Wars after Waterloo, and the start of World War I, there had been many wars in Europe, many Civil War, and many revolutions. An objective record of the 19th Century and even The Edwardian Era, belies the claim that this was truly "la Belle Époque" designated by European thinkers and writers after World War I. That the great crises of this era, whether its the Revolutions of 1848, the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Russo-Japanese War did not start an all out continental war with the corresponding scale of violence can be ascribed and credited to the limited destructive capacity of the weapons despite its steady advancement, the solidity of the diplomatic norms established after Waterloo that allowed it to withstand multiple cracks, or sheer dumb luck. None of this is to state that World War I was inevitable or inherent to the foundations of Europe, merely that the history of Europe was so constantly violent and had been so for centuries, that a periodic occurrence and recurrence of "small wars" was seen as tolerable and preferable so long as it didn't affect the social foundations and regional boundaries the way the wars of the 18th Century did (the Seven Years' War and the French Revolutionary-Napoleonic Wars). This explains why at the outset of World War I, some of its leading participants expected a "short war" or a limited war. There was little reason to think at the outset that this wouldn't be something similar to one of those "small wars", a few of which had been forgotten even at the time.
The true origins of the war, at least in terms of outlining the scale, length and nature of impact, lies in the lopsided nature of social development across Western and Eastern Europe, and the means by which order in these states was maintained. Until the middle of the 19th Century, England was the unquestioned commercial and military superpower of Europe, the cradle of Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, and the home of "free trade" and the possessor of most of the world's colonies. France, formerly the most powerful continental power and an ex-rival of England, occupied a happy second place and likewise joined the colonial game with gusto, out of both economic competition, and as a means to combat its instability and multiple changes in its form of government, and likewise became the second major nation in the continent to industrialize and transform itself. In Central and Eastern Europe however there was a different story. You see the governments of these states generally wanted modernization and advancement, but on its own terms. They wanted development and progress while still maintaining aristocratic privileges, a strong autocratic state, wealth in the hands of a few elites and little of the social instability they feared such changes would bring. It was only defeat in the Crimean War, that led Tsar Alexander II to abolish serfdom across the Russian Empire, and even then the reforms were done in such a way that newly freed serfs could not benefit meaningfully from their liberation. The Austro-Hungarian Empire likewise maintained a multi-cultural empire of Hungarians, Czechs, Slavs, Italians, Poles, and Jews among others, and even benefited a few of them, but this was accompanied by the maintenance of a Police State and a repressive bureaucracy that only fed the desires for nationalism among many of its "subjects". The Ottoman Empire was the "sick man of Europe" yet maintaining large territory across Europe and Asia, and whose dismemberment was seen by rival powers as a Foregone Conclusion, delayed solely to ensure that one nation got a bigger piece of the pie than others, which periodically led Britain and France to intervene on their behalf (as in the case of the Crimean War) even as the latter wanted its territories in the Levant. The Wars of Unification in Italy and Germany weakened some of these empires and in the process created the newest, and most powerful, and dynamic of these powers: Imperial Germany.
Under Otto von Bismarck, Imperial Germany formed itself via what the historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler called Sammlungspolitik. A complex word that defines the idea of solving domestic problems by exporting them outside, eliminating disputes by getting everyone to "rally 'round the flag". The ideology of nationalism, once opposed by many of these conservative forces came to be seen as a means of creating a unifying and majoritarian ideology that manufactured unity and control in society from the top-down. Now of course none of this was exceptional to Germany or exceptional to the 19th Century or to Europe (cf, Genghis Gambit) but the persistence of this archaic approach to statecraft alongside industrial and social development and advancement was unique. Imperial Germany formed itself via wars against local German holdouts, than against Austria, and finally and most importantly, France in the Franco-Prussian War. The latter conflict shifted the Balance of Power overnight. Germany was now the most powerful state in Continental Europe, it dictated a punitive peace on France, extorting damaging reparations that continued to hamper its economy for decades as well as grabbing the regions of Alsace-Lorraine on the Franco-German borders against the wishes of the people who were living there. This was a Shocking Defeat Legacy that toppled the Second French Empire, started a revolution, led to the formation of a Republic, and fanned a desire among Frenchmen to avenge this defeat and regain their lost territory (from which we get the term revanchism). The British meanwhile took note of a new threat across the channel, one which showed the same industrial and technological elan that they had prided themselves in, and which through rapid government-directed and supported industrialization was closing the gap between itself, England and France. Bismarck, after succeeding in his plans and gambits to unite Germany, and establish itself as a major power saw little need to alter the means of Sammlungspolitik now that its end had been achieved. As such he became heavily involved in foreign policy across Europe and used his mastery of the same to better maintain and enlarge German influence both locally and internationally, periodically playing England, France and Russia against each other to prevent an alliance forming against it on both sides. His dismissal in 1890 by Kaiser Wilhelm II is seen as a turning point in ensuring the war broke out, but critics argue that Bismarck's brinkmanship, his political adventurism, and the nurturing of what can be seen as the world's first state-supported military-industrial complex, played a determining, if not causative factor in the lead-up to the war.
The major problem for Germany in the coming decades was Tsarist Russia, where industrialization had arrived later then Europe. The social upheaval that followed industrialization, namely the development of a skilled urban working class, and the growth of a middle-class was feared by the autocratic nature of the Tsarist state, which tried to divert problems by entering into a war with Japan, only to lose. Yet a stable Russia that achieved industrialization would be unbeatable for Germany, threatening its military hegemony in Eastern Europe, where it nurtured plans for settlement and expansionism in the borderland states. Vulnerability to any nation on its East or its West, left them open to invasion and partition. To this end, a few German planners such as the Chief of the General Staff, Moltke the Younger, proposed plans to start a war and cripple and weaken Russia, and destabilize its Empire before it completes and achieves industrialization. This crisis of encroaching modernization and the threat it could pose to preexisting hegemony, operated behind the scenes over a series of diplomatic struggles between European powers in the decades leading up to war. These diplomatic struggles was accompanied by secret treaties and other deals, leading to the formation of an alliance between England-France and Russia on one hand, and an alliance between the Germans, the Ottomans, the Austrians, and briefly, the Italians on the other hand. Accompanying this diplomacy was a massive scheme of industrialization and armament, an arms race, between the great powers as each sought to match and/or check the advantage of the other.
Emerging nationalism was a cynical tool that both sides took advantage of, even if either Power Bloc was comprised of massive empires that denied the rights of basic sovereignty to many of its subjects. The idea was to promote and nurture nationalism in a way that would destabilize and distract the other side. To that end, Imperial Germany supported and nurtured the nationalistic aspirations in multiple nations, from Poland to Finland to Ireland, while the other sides did the same, including supporting their very own partition of Poland against others, while the British and French encouraged Arab Nationalism as a means to break the Ottoman Empire. This climate of micro-nationalism had deadly consequences in the Ottoman Empire, where the emerging modernizing state-builders, the Three Pashas, created and promoted Turkish hegemony by directing and mobilizing hatred and violence to the Greek, Kurdish, Assyrian and Armenian minorities. The height of this cynicism would be the famous gesture made by Imperial German officials, to allow Vladimir Lenin to pass from Switzerland to Russia in a sealed train, in the hopes that it would add to the destabilization of Tsarist-Russia towards the end of the war. The war finally broke out over the issue of the Balkans. Tsarist Russian support of the Orthodox-worshipping nations of Greece, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Montenegro against the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarian empires. Russia's sense of itself as the defender of the Orthodox faith sparked the Crimean War, and this recurred again in a series of conflicts in the Balkan region. The first of this destabilized the Ottoman Empire's European hegemony, which in turn enlarged Russian hegemony and which in turn panicked Germans, who leaned on the weak Austro-Hungarian Empire to pick up the slack in the regional Balance of Power, which in turn made the Austro-Hungarians the enemies of Serbia, which now saw itself as the new emerging great nation in Europe. This informed the background of the Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which was carried out by agents supported by the Serbian government, and the diplomatic tussle that followed led Russia to support the Serbians, and the Germans to support the Austro-Hungarians.
On 8th December 1912, Kaiser Wilhelm II summoned a cabinet meeting of the Imperial Council where they noted that the present situation could not be allowed to continue, since accompanied by Russian industrialization, it would in time erode their advantages and gains. The Kaiser's generals agreed that if a war was inevitable, then it was best it broke out sooner rather than later. If it happened soon, then Imperial Germany could press and defend its position and advantage. These were the only options available to Imperial Germany for it to persist and remain in the same form and the same system of government. These were also the options for Tsarist Russia which was destabilizing at home, weakened by military defeats, and facing many problems that the autocratic state either didn't want to deal with, or were incapable of dealing with: chiefly the tensions of class leveling and the specter of revolution and the greater gains of the worker's movement and their desire to convert it into political gains. It was common practice for everyone at that time to deal with these problems by Sammlungspolitik. World War I was a war of empires, and a war to defend the concept of empire and imperialism, in a world that was already becoming so interconnected by transport and communication, that it has come to be defined as "the first globalization". Economic theorists of the time harbored under what Norman Angell called "The Great Illusion" (which inspired the title of the famous World War I film). The idea that a world of economic competition ended the need of war automatically cancelled the possibility of war. Angell, contrary to general opinions, argued that a political order needed to be established to prevent war, and that war could be practiced, and continued to be practiced for political expediency. That Great Illusion would be replaced by the illusion of "the war to end all wars".
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 types, straight from the playing-fields of Eton, looking forward to Giving the Hun a Damn Good Licking, or decent, intellectual types who write poetry and ruminate on the meaning of sacrifice and duty, but provide a brave face for the men.
Only the darkest of comedies are set here, although there's plenty of scope for tragedy. A very few films substitute American "Doughboys" for the Tommies, though actually the Americans avoided trench warfare as a matter of policy (they already saw how bloody it was during their own Civil War), and were fortunate to arrive en masse just as things had started moving again.
Knights of the Sky:
The war on the ground is a depressing morass of mud, barbed wire and certain death—but chivalry and bravery still count for something in the air. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines take to the skies in flimsy biplanes to duel with the Germans. Most of these pilots are chivalrous, except for that one evil bastard in the black plane and that Britisher who repeatedly guns down his already-defeated enemy on the ground. Their German counterpart is Bruno Stachel, a ruthless functioning alcoholic with equally little patience for chivalrous dueling, who takes to the skies in The Blue Max.
The British fliers are all officers, and usually fit into one of the two Trench Warfare officer types above, though there's more room for a Biggles-style dashing hero here. Indeed, Biggles first appeared as a Royal Flying Corps pilot in France.
While both of these settings have a lot of truth behind them, they don't tell the whole story. In particular, watching any of the small number of American and British World War One movies out there could convince you that it was a solely Anglo-German affair, with the Americans turning up to lend a hand later on. In particular, many writers (and viewers/readers) in Anglospheric world confuse 1914 with 1940 and forget that the French kept fighting throughout, because the Western Front was situated in the northernmost regions of France from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier. French soldiers outnumbered the British substantially on the Western Front (70,000 British soldiers were initially mobilized in 1914, they were 800,000 in France) and even taught inexperienced American soldiers how to fight in the trenches and equipped them. By the end of the war and despite the heaviest death toll on the Western Front, the French army had become the most powerful army in the world, but it didn't last a decade as soon as pacifism became a major value in French society. In fact, more French people died during this war than during its sequel (three times more), and the vast majority of them were soldiers.
Many works glamorize the first fighter pilots as the "Knights of the Sky", and there is some truth to this, but they also had such a high casualty rate that their airplanes were commonly nicknamed "flying coffins"—the average life expectancy of new pilots was about one week. They had none of the safety systems or redundancies of later warplanes, and were very fragile. A handful of veteran pilots on each side gained enough experience to score dozens of kills, but these were exceptional. Ironically, many infantrymen stuck in the trenches still envied the pilots, because even though they had a high casualty rate, they at least got to sleep in a clean bed at night in their hangar, not stuck in the hellish mud of the trenches.
Even after the smarter generals—and there were several—realized they didn't have the technology to break through the other side's defenses, the politicians insisted on more futile charges. Eventually, the tank was invented, and new strategies devised. The Entente battle plans for 1919 were apparently very close to blitzkrieg, but the war ended first. The Entente General Staffs then were wracked by infighting over claiming credit for which service arm actually won the war—largely ignoring the fact that all of them working together is what in fact decided the conflict—and as a result dropped much of what they'd learned about combined arms warfare, aircraft, and tanks down the back of the filing cabinet... not their best moment.
As the name suggests, it was a World War—fighting on the Eastern Front between Germany/Austria and Russia/Serbia was far more fluid than in the west, with great swathes of land gained and lost with every offensive and cavalry galloping freely around. The Austro-Hungarians and Italians—with some (respectively) German and Entente support—slugged it out over the Alpine passes in some of the worst fighting in the history of warfare, and fought no fewer than eleven battles over the same river (the Soča/Isonzo) before the Austro-Hungarians finally broke through only to be stopped on the Piave river and forced back to the old battlelines on one MORE battle until the Austro-Hungarian lines were finally broken and Vienna was forced to come to terms. When certain mountain fortresses were recognized as invincible (a realization that usually took the lives of thousands), whole mountains were mined from the inside and blown skywards together with their strongholds and garrisons. With fighting in Africa, naval engagements off the Falklands and Chile, commerce raiding in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, an Anglo-Japanese (under Japanese command) siege and seizure of Germany's concessions in China and the Pacific, an Australian attack on Germany's colonies in New Guinea, a battle on the Mexico-Arizona border as well as sabotage in North America, the war took place on all continents except Antarctica and Australia—and the ANZACs (Aussies and Kiwis) showed up with the Canadians as part of The British Empire.
The short version of just what started the war is this: a centuries-long buildup of interlocking treaties (many of which required that Nation A automatically join in defense of Nation B, which required that Nation C join in, etc), betrayals, and long-simmering ethnic and national feuds (Germans and French hated one another, Austrians and Serbs hated one another, and on and on) put Europe in a position where the slightest spark would set off a global conflict that had become more or less inevitable.(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 forces to steer their countries into a war. 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 overreliance on diplomatic service communiqués and records—which were readily available and easy to access—and the need to keep it simple for schoolchildrens sake led to an overemphasis 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 civilized affair—as one would expect of the most civilized nation-states on earth.
To extrapolate, the war was a culmination of centuries of unchecked imperialism with causes dating back as far as the Thirty Years' War. The Congress of Vienna at the end of The Napoleonic Wars was one of the more direct consequences. Not only did the division of Europe have a lot of problems (such as uprooting former power structures like the Holy Roman Empire and haphazardly reorganizing them into barely functional confederacies), but the wars also brought a new wave of nationalism rippling across Europe. In many ways, the ideas of The French Revolution carried to neighboring countries, despite the attempts of their despotic rulers to resist them. Many Europeans began to have new ideas of the role of the nation state in their lives. In particular, the idea of the government being a force that reflected the will of the people rather than the will of a ruling oligarchy inspired many populist-driven revolutions and also helped people to identify with broader values besides simple things like culture and religion. You were no longer a Gascon or an Aquitainian, but a Frenchman. Hanoverians, Pomeranians, and Prussians began to see themselves as Germans. Even Italy, which had remained politically fractured since the fall of The Roman Empire began to come together under a common identity. This caused the rise of several new nation states throughout the 19th century. Not only that, but it often caused resentment among people who did not identify with their government, but identify as smaller national units. Croats, Czechs, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians, Serbians, and many others began to push for independence, especially as conditions in their parent countries grew worse.
Every single nation in the war had selfish reasons for its involvement (besides maybe the ones that were helplessly invaded, such as Belgium). On the Central Powers, Imperial Germany, or rather Kaiser Wilhelm II, had ambitions to expand its empire to be mightier than that of Great Britain. Having come late to the colonial race (only being formed in 1871) Germany didn't have as much time or as many resources to spare in colonizing the rest of the world, only gaining a few scraps in Africa and East Asia. However, since unification they had come to dominate the European continent in terms of economics and science, supplanting the French. Otto von Bismarck believed that Germany's position was best maintained as a continental empire, while Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to grow the empire abroad. This disagreement led to Bismarck's sacking from the position of Chancellor. Germany then instigated a naval arms race with Britain and continued to aggravate France's position abroad such as in the Moroccan Crisis.
Austria-Hungary had various designs on the Balkans, particularly Serbia. Their desire to annex Serbia was motivated by internal political crisis as well as international recognition. On the homefront, the annexation of Serbia would add another land to the Hapsburg crown. Kaiser Franz had likely hoped that the addition would check the power of Hungary, which had risen up in revolution a few decades before and was defeated with Russian assistance. Franz had devised the Ausgleich Compromise to try and placate the Hungarians, transforming the nation fully from "Austria" to "Austria-Hungary," but an additional, and hopefully loyal, crownland in Serbia would act as insurance to make sure the Hungarians did not rebel again. And of course, decades of perceived decline had left Austria-Hungary's image in Europe tarnished, so annexing a country would be a great way of demonstrating that they still had some power.
The Ottomans were faced by a similar lack of recognition and prestige, having been all but carved up by frequent foreign interventions. For most of the 19th century, they had aligned to British and French interests out of necessity, as the British and French owned most of their debt and helped fund many of their reform projects. The British and French, for their part, were using the Ottomans as a barrier to absorb Russian aggression and check Russian expansionism in the region. Things began to change after Germany united in 1871. The new nation was seen as a possible "third way" for Ottoman policy makers to avoid being sandwiched between the ambitions of the Anglo-French Empires and Russia. The Germans also saw the Ottomans as a potential ally and began to invest in their industries, such as the Berlin-Baghdad railway. They also sent officers to help train and modernize the Ottoman army. When the Ottomans entered the war, it was hot off the heels of decades of political turmoil. The Ottomans had been in severe decline for a century as their outdated governmental structure failed to adapt to a modern world. Reforms were attempted in the 19th century with limited success, but they were held back by a lack of funding, as the Ottoman taxation system was laughably inefficient. This all culminated in the 1908 Young Turks Revolution, when a group of modern reformers known as the Young Turks seized control of the government and forced the Sultan to restore the constitution (originally created during a previous flirtation with democracy that the sultan had swiftly ended). For the years leading to the war, the nation was run mostly by the Committee of Union and Progress, who had effectively dismantled the young democracy by arresting the head of the opposing party. They tried to "thaw" the Ottoman Empire by allowing in newspapers and trying to attract foreign investment, but ultimately they would not succeed in time for the war to begin. They also had significant tensions both within and without their borders. A major source of headache was the Balkan Peninsula. In 1878, the Congress of Berlin had divided up the Balkans into relative spheres of influence following the Russo-Turkish War. In that war, the various Balkan nations teamed up with Russia to kick out the Ottomans, resulting in the Empire losing a lot of its Balkan territories. The Austro-Hungarians had outright stormed into Bosnia mid-crisis and added it to their empire. The Russians had secured a lasting partnership with Serbia. The Balkan nations would come back for round 2 in 1912, where they conquered most of the remaining Ottoman territory in the Balkans. Meanwhile, the Ottomans were having ethnic tensions with the Christian Armenian community in their lands that had mirrored similar conflicts with the Greeks. This time, the Ottomans were even harsher, opting to massacre rebelling Armenian communities outright. This sowed the seeds of the Armenian Genocide later on. All in all, the Ottomans joined the war in the hopes of stymieing their ongoing decline and fighting back against the imperialist British, French, and Russians, who all had designs on their territory.
The Entente was not exempt from this selfishness though. The British were worried about German expansionism abroad. Germany was the first power in decades that actually had a chance of beating the British. Prior to the war, both sides had a naval arms race of sorts, but it petered out by 1912, due to the fact that Germany realized it was an arms race they couldn't win, which in turn fed into the decision to focus more on their land forces. Britain also wanted to support its ally, France. The two had definitely hated each other throughout the 18th century and some of the 19th century, and even at the start of the war it was entirely possible for the British to have sided with Germany. However, the various wars and crises of the late 19th century had bonded the two nations closer together, and Britain didn't want to see the balance of power in Continental Europe fall to the Germans, mostly because they viewed the Germans as far more threatening than the French. The French, for their part, had a bitter nationalist rivalry with the Germans. The Germans had made a mockery of them during the Franco-Prussian War and had also annexed Alasce-Lorraine on the border, territory which they considered rightfully French. France had to recoup its lost prestige, and was also facing a wave of nationalism following the Franco-Prussian War. The Russian Empire was also buckling under internal pressure. Some of this was nationalist/ethnic motivations, as with the Poles and Ukrainians, but most of it stemmed from Russia's haphazard integration into the new world. Its modernization left something to be desired, and the working classes felt exploited. The change of course from a very agrarian, feudal state to a modern industrial one angered a lot of people, ranging from nobility who lost privileges to small farmers who found their farms being gobbled up by mechanized agriculture. Czar Nicholas II hoped to direct some of this anger towards the Germans and also unite the Slavic peoples of the Balkans behind his cause. His ambitions in the Balkans become pretty evident because at one point, Russia was promised the city of Istanbul. Czar Nicholas II, like many Czars before him, considered himself the inheritor of the Byzantine Empire, so his desire for influence in the Balkans Makes Sense In Context.
With the sides set, it seemed that any small spark could ignite a war. In fact, the war was only narrowly avoided several times. Notably, the Moroccan Crises almost set the war in motion. France was trying to set up a puppet protectorate in Morocco. Kaiser Wilhelm II went to Morocco to offer his support to the Sultan, pledging to guarantee their independence. The first time, he ultimately stepped down under the threat of war. The second time, a rebellion threatened to remove the Sultan from power, and the French responded by deploying troops to the capital, Fez, to support their puppet ruler. Germany then sent its own ships to "protect trade interests" in the region. Britain, despite having warned the French against intervention in Morocco, sent their own ships in support of their ally. War seemed destined to occur, but ultimately a treaty was drawn up. The French were allowed to create their protectorate in exchange for concessions to Germany in the Congo. War was averted, albeit having come very close.
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", which was sponsored by Serbia's military intelligence directorate. You see, Franz Ferdinand had big plans to make Austria-Hungary into a far less centralized state than it was before, based off a federation of all the different ethnic groups of the Empire, rather than a hegemony of Germans and Hungarians. He was even planning to give political power to Serbian leaders. The ascendancy 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. While we just don't know if this particular attack was actually ordered by the Serbian military Junta itself, it was very much in their interests.
Austria-Hungary's leadership hashed out a plan of action a short while later. Almost everyone wanted to figure out if the Serbian Junta had actually ordered Franz Ferdinand's death, which would require Serbian permission to conduct an investigation in their country. Many also wanted the Serbian military to stop sponsoring terrorist groups within Austria-Hungary. So their plan of action was actually quite cunning: they would demand that Serbia allow Austro-Hungarian detectives into their country to conduct an investigation into the Black Hand organisation so that they could determine who was ultimately responsible for Franz Ferdinand's assassination. If Serbia agreed, they would probably be able to implicate the Serbian Junta in Franz Ferdinand's death (and they might then be able to use that as a pretext for war, or to bully the Junta into cutting its links with terrorist groups). If Serbia refused, Austria-Hungary could invade and install a friendly regime which would not sponsor terrorists and allow them to conduct the investigation.
Once Austria-Hungary issued its demand, Russia declared that it would not tolerate any violations of Serbia's national sovereignty. Kaiser Wilhelm seems to have seriously underestimated the gravity of the situation, promising 'unconditional' German support for Austria before going for a holiday on his personal yacht (upon which he could not be contacted). So, Imperial Germany supported Austria-Hungary.note Gavrilo Princip (the man who assassinated the Archduke and Archduchess) was too young for the death penalty. He was given a sentence of 20 years and died in prison of tuberculosis in 1918.
For the reasons outlined earlier, there exists a great misconception that after these events, the system of military alliances set WWI off immediately. This is silly; treaties are just ink on paper, all the powers had ignored such agreements when it suited them—albeit with lesser powers.note The way the war actually started was rather messy and involved an awful lot of errors and misunderstandings, some of which had persisted for decades and only then came to bite the continent in its collective backside.
Austria-Hungary by all means at this point wanted to go to war, but feared retaliation by Serbia's Russian ally. 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. However, they lacked powerful or committed allies, and also had the most powerful enemies (Russia and France).
Thus, the Austrians sent word asking if the German Kaiser would back their plan of invading Serbia. The Kaiser, in a moment of monumental oversight that was dismally typical of him, did not take the letter seriously—believing the Austrians would never be stupid enough to provoke the Russians. He promised his full support for whatever the Austrians saw fit to do.
Unfortunately, thanks to an incredibly botched opening move by Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorff, the initial period of war was an unmitigated disaster for Austria-Hungary. As a paranoid second-rate power which saw itself as being surrounded by enemies, Austria-Hungary had the most mobilization-plans of any European power. Germany had four (later three); Russia and France had two; Britain and Italy had one apiece. Austria-Hungary had seven, including one for a war with Italy (yes, this was when Italy was still their ally). However, Austria-Hungary had three deployment plans suited to this exact situation (war with Serbia and maybe Russia as well). The first deployed as many troops as possible in forward positions for an offensive against Serbia, deploying troops far behind the border with Russia for a defensive operation there. The second deployed forces in defensive positions well-behind the borders with both Serbia and Russia, keeping the bulk of Austro-Hungarian troops in the center of the country to be deployed against either power as necessary. The third deployed the bulk of the troops in forward positions for an offensive against Russia, and a small defensive force against Serbia.
Germany wanted the third plan. Hötzendorff implemented the first. When the Emperor noticed the illogic of doing this in a war which was certain to involve Russia as well and asked him to change it, it was too late and it did far more harm than good. The Austro-Hungarian forces deployed against Serbia were already deployed too far forward and basically had to go on the offensive, and the forces deployed against Russia had already been deployed too far back and would have to march the remaining 100km on foot. Meanwhile neither operation would start on-time or have the strength to succeed note The Austrians' invasion of Russia was a total non-starter, with their forces actually being driven back by Russian counterattacks. And their botched invasion of tiny, highly-militarized—from its recent experiences fighting the Ottomans, Albanians, and Bulgarians—hilly-to-mountainous Serbia saw their only-slightly-more-numerous force devastated by the Balkan state's artillery and routed.
War between Austria and Serbia, however, did not immediately equal World War One. What it did do was convince Russia that Germany had something planned. They figured rightly that Austria would not act without Germany's backing, but they mistook this as the possible first step in a larger plan for initiating a war of conquest. Just to be safe, Russia began to mobilize its reserves. It would be three weeks 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 defend against two invasions by superior forces at once. If it came to that, economically-vital industrial areas in the Rhineland or Silesia would be occupied and Germany's chances of turning the war around after total economic mobilization would be nil. Their only chance of holding onto these territories was to concentrate on one offensive and then the other, and for that to work, Germany had to act at the first sign of trouble. If the French or the Russians mobilized their reserves, Germany couldn't afford to wait and see. The French and Germans, acting independently and without knowledge of each other's intentions or actions, mobilized on the first of August note .
Both France and Germany had, for nearly two decades, made various plans to invade each other through Belgium due to the country's weak military forces (she basically didn't have any outside of three ginormous fortresses along her chief railway lines) and good infrastructure as a result of her abundant mineral (iron+coal) wealth and early industrialisation and relative prosperity. German deployment plans called for, in the event of a Franco-German war, all available forces to be deployed against France. However, as a Franco-German-Russian war (and thus simultaneous Franco-Russian offensive into Germany) began to look more likely after 1905 and Germany's failure to re-establish her alliance with Russia, most deployment plans after 1904 called for at least 15% of Germany's troops to be deployed in Prussia to counter Russia. While Germany wanted to deploy more, the railway network would only allow up to 40%—and this would only be enough to achieve 1:1 parity of troop-numbers with Russia (rather than the 2:1 against a French offensive). Thus, even though a couple of Generalstaffreise wargames did experiment with focusing on defeating Russia's offensive, all the actual Deployment Plans called for deploying c.85-90% of troops in the west to defeat the French offensive. What would be done with the troops after they were deployed was left open-ended, as Germany's military doctrine called for the lower-level commanders to make their own decisions about what to do with their forces—though it was generally understood that the anti-France force would keep its 'right'/western wing strong so it could launch a strong counter-offensive against the sides of a French offensive directly into Germany and/or defend against a French offensive coming through Belgium and the Ardennes forest.
As it happened, the Western wing in 1914 decided to go on the offensive instead on the grounds that the coming war would be a long and damaging one to the very ground on which it was fought, thus making it imperative that it should not be fought on German soil (despite the many advantages that would confer). Therefore, Germany invaded Belgium with the forces of her right flank to make the war happen in not-Germany and preclude the French from occupying it first under their Plan XVII, which (unknown to the Germans) only called for the French to march into southern Belgium if Germany made moves to do so first. 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 . When the two invasion forces tripped over one another in the Ardennes, the French forces made the mistake of attacking without scouting out the German forces or waiting for their artillery to catch up. They take heavy losses and inflict few in return, and the Germans' follow-up offensive to catch the damaged forces while they're still understrength and demoralized inflicts still-heavier losses. Ultimately, however, pursuing these forces draws the Germans too far forward and south—their left/eastern flank still needs to be covered and can't be linked-up with Alsace-Lorraine as the fortress-district of Verdun can't be taken, their right/western flank is completely open and vulnerable to any and all attack (particularly from Paris), and their individual forces are way too spread-out. This leaves them susceptible to even a half-arsed Entente counter-offensive...
The Ottoman Empire entered the alliance with the Central Powers (what Germany and Austria-Hungary came to be known as) through some trickery by the German Admiralty. note 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 earlier 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 defense budget. In the process they aligned themselves against their old allies, the Prussians, who soon trounced France and became the center of the unified Germany in the Franco-Prussian War. After several decades of colonial rivalry with the Germans, the British had become fearful of German power and saw the War as an opportunity to check what they saw as German expansionism. The invasion of Belgium—a country created after the Napoleonic Wars for the express purpose of being neutral and independent, and whose neutrality and independence was guaranteed by all—was the perfect reason to get involved. Indeed, France had their own plans to invade Belgium itself if German forces were allowed transit through it. Albert's refusal of access to the Germans shelved that plan. note The Japanese came in on the Entente's side because of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and promises of German territory in 1914, and made a good showing in every theater in which they were involved, especially in the Far Eastern and Mediterranean theaters.
The Germans took the offensive on the 4th of August and began pushing through Belgium, regardless of the hostilities. The tiny Belgian army was no match for the juggernaut of the German war machine, but they fought bravely still and delayed the Germans, especially by holding them up with crucial forts along the border, such as in Liège. The Germans still managed to push through their territory, but there were many hang-ups. It was a particularly hot summer in Western Europe, so their own share of men and horses collapsed from heat stroke, and there were issues with the troops outpacing their logistical supplies. Despite some of these setbacks, the Belgian capital of Brussels fell into German hands.
The French made grabs at Alasce, but their success was limited and the German advance would drain any offensive mobility they had. The Germans pushed through Northern France, winning some victories in the Battle of the Frontiers but being ultimately delayed by the British Expeditionary Force and French rearguards. This allowed the main French and British forces to redeploy outside of Paris, completely voiding the German plan of encircling these troops. This culminated in arguably the most crucial battle of the Western front, the First Battle of the Marne. French and British troops stopped the German offensive with a counterattack on the river Marne. The Germans were simply outmatched by the Entente's resistance. Although roughly equal in numbers and equipment, the Germans had just trudged through nearly month of battles in Belgium and lacked artillery support. In addition to those Entente forces that had trudged against them, the back of the offensive was held up by the French garrison of Paris, who were an army in their own right and were both fresh and ready. The hasty transfer of some divisions to the Eastern Front also didn't help German odds, and a few bad tactical maneuvers only added to the problems. Plus, German logistics had slowed to the point of barely being able to sustain the offensive, as the retreating Belgians and French tore up railroad tracks, and attempts to move supplies by horse proved futile in a modern army. Heatstroke had also killed many horses, resulting in a shortage. Even with all of these problems, the battle was certainly close and hard fought, and defeat meant the Entente could lose Paris just a few months into the war.
The Entente—thanks to determined Belgian resistance, the fighting retreat of the British Expeditionary Force from Mons, and Foch's counterattack at the Marne—stopped the German advance before they could reach Paris. The result was a race to the sea (or rather, mutual attempts at outflanking which ended there) and entrenchment of lines. The subsequent trench warfare became the most iconic image of the war, as both sides began to hunker down. It doesn't take a stunning tactician to know that pointing two fortifications at each other won't result in much offensive mobility, and thus the Western Front, despiteand because ofbeing one of the most hotly contested and most (in)famous parts of the war, began to slow to a standstill as neither side could break the stalemate. Germany's plan for a quick end to the war by seizing Paris was most certainly shattered. There was a minor bright spot in the war during the Christmas Truce, one of the most famous events of the war. German and British troops had an impromptu meeting in No Man's Land where they exchanged gifts, told stories, and even played football. However, by the end of the day the officers had broken up the fraternization, seeing it as bad for morale. By the next day, most of the line was back to shooting at each other.
1915 became a stalemate. Germany tried for the offensive, directed at the British, but were pushed back due to logistical problems and an unwillingness of either side to budge. This is when the futility of Trench warfare started to become ever more apparent. While the German General's Staff were no slouches strategically, they, like all the European powers, were fighting with fairly outdated concepts of warfare. Their quick and overwhelming victory against the French in the Franco-Prussian war communicated ideas of massed infantry assaults supplemented by large artillery bombardments. However, the earthen trenches were built to withstand shrapnel just as much as bullets, meaning artillery had less and less effect. Machine guns had also become a major game changer. One machine gun crew could mow down hundreds of men in a matter of minutes, while still preventing vulnerability by hiding in the trenches. It seemed like trenches would be an insurmountable force, but that doesn't mean either side stopped trying. The British and Canadians then led an offensive at Vimy Ridge with some success. The Entente would stay on the offensive for the majority of the war, slowly but surely pushing back the Germans. Another offensive began in Champagne later that year, with both sides suffering heavy losses, but the Entente taking the worse of it while failing to make the Germans budge in a truly sizable way. Further offensives at Loos fared similarly. All in all the whole year on the Western front was marked by failed offensives and a growing sense of futility, probably even more than in 1916.
Meanwhile, the war in the sky was on. Planes, up to this point, had only been equipped as scouts. However, a French pilot named Roland Garros equipped his plane with machine guns and became the first pilot to shoot down an enemy craft as such. The Germans reverse engineered his plane and started producing fighter pilots. They had made a marginally better airforce, and their heavy deployments of fighters meant the Entente were blind, having all their scouts shot down. This became one of the first examples of the arms race that both sides engaged in to break the stalemate. Initially, the forward-facing guns on planes had to shoot through the propellers, meaning that a pilot could easily shoot himself down. The guns were simply too unreliable to mount on the wings; they had to be in a reachable position. Garros had been the one to pioneer the successful application of a machine gun to a plane. He asked an engineer to install a synchronization mechanism on the motor to line it up with the guns. The Vickers still had a habit of hitting the propellers, so the propellers had to be armored to protect the pilot. By 1915 this started to become standard after Garros had successfully managed to shoot down several enemy planes before the Germans brought him down. They took his synchronization gear, reverse-engineered it, and then perfected it. Fokker was granted the first production contracts, and their planes, particularly their stark-red Triplane, have since become iconic in the war.
The arms race between the two sides also developed on the ground, as each developed more and more weapons to break the stalemate, with varying success. The Germans made use of chemical weapons, the Brits topped them with tanks, and so on so forth. Several iconic images of the war began to appear in 1915 and early 1916. The German Flammenwerfer was devised as a way of quickly clearing trenches with fire, but it proved to be lackluster compared to conventional arms due to its cumbersome weight and limited range. Chemical warfare was first used in 1914, but they didn't come into wide use until 1915 when chlorine gas was deployed at Ypres. While this was initially effective, the wind had a habit of blowing the deadly gas back into German lines, and gas masks later in the war nullified a lot of the capabilities. What absolutely nobody in any position of responsibility seemed to realize, however, was that reality was the greatest constraining factor upon either side's ability to sustain an offensive. That is to say, that shortages of food and ammo made it impossible to fight. This sounds obvious, but the complete lack of focus on the logistics of road- and railway-warfare eludes most accounts of the war. However, some logistical technologies did start to see wider use in the war to great effect. Radio was particularly helpful for scouts and ships, while telegram wires became an important feature, criss-crossing trench lines.
The Somme offensive was one of the most infamous battles of the entire war, especially the much-mythologized First Day. Although the first day of the offensive got off to a good start on the French half of the battlefield, the horrendous inadequacy of communications between the Commonwealth artillery and infantry coupled with the troop's inadequate training and experience resulted in the near-total loss of the participant Commonwealth units (mostly to wounds, which put the men out of action for weeks or months, but many were also crippled or died). The German defenders sat out a massive bombardment that was meant to destroy them and then popped out to pepper the British forces advancing under the assumption they would occupy the "vacant" positions. While artillery is crucial it does not win battles by itself, as was thought at the time, but what is typically ignored is that even on the first day the French and the British forces *did* do quite well, and over the next several months the Entente artillery and infantry managed to advance solidly in spite of numerous German counterattacks (which soon dropped off when Hindenburg and Ludendorff took control in favour of 'defense-in-depth').
In the end the Entente liberated the Somme River basin at appalling cost in time and lives while the Germans failed to prevent them from doing it at similar cost. The latter beat a scorched earth fallback that ceded even more land than they lost in combat after thoroughly burning, poisoning, and destroying everything they could in the ceded area. Perhaps the most-neglected question about Somme is why on earth it happened in the first place? The long-term answer is that in late 1915 the British and Russians had been brow-beaten by the French Defence Minister—General Joffre—into launching offensives that summer. These were timed to coincide with Italy and Rumania's entry into the war and (separately-planned) subsequent invasions of Croatia and Bulgaria respectively.
Tanks made their first appearance in the Somme offensive and helped rip a (relatively) large gash in a German defensive line during one of the later battles, but they were too few and too easily knocked-out to have a decisive effect. They were part of the growing "arms race" trend and the brainchild of the Landships Committee, spearheaded by Winston Churchill. Initial models were basically just big box-like tractors with enough armor to make it across No Man's Land. They were initially devised as an APC of sorts, but eventually the Committee found that slapping a bunch of guns on them was more effective.
The Somme, despite its cost, was not a failure, as many important lessons were learned that would help the Entente break the stalemate in 1917. In particular, they gleaned how to properly use artillery. Rather than bombarding their enemies for days or weeks at a time then advancing, they would instead fire a "creeping barrage" that landed ahead of the men. This tactic was not used initially because military experience was based on older artillery models that were too inaccurate, but the field guns used in the war were a greater improvement over their predecessors than first realized. Originally it was expected that experienced French forces would do the bulk of the effort in the Somme offensive, contributing as much as 60% of the manpower and artillery for the offensive. However, the actual French contribution to the offensive as it was ultimately launched was less than 40%—and only 30% of the casualties. The reason for this is that by mid-1916 those forces were needed elsewhere, and the French had also needed their allies' offensives to take pressure off their own Army. This brings us to Verdun.
The Verdun offensive was launched by Germany as part of her new Western Front Commander- von Falkenhayn's- strategy of "bleeding France dry". There were two elements to this. The first and most important element was avoiding German losses. The second was to inflict as many losses upon the French as possible at the lowest possible cost in German lives. The area he chose was the Verdun Salient, a small ring of French forts centered on the town of Verdun jutting into German territory, supplied only by one road and a light single-tracked railway while the German side facing it had three double-tracked railway lines and even more roads. The idea was to make some small, short-range attacks of a couple of kilometres (i.e. well within friendly light- and medium- artillery range) and take the strategic ridges in the area from which to command a superior artillery position. The French would then almost certainly try to counter-attack and take it back, whereupon the Germans could use their massive superiority in artillery to massacre their forces. Once the French had completely destroyed themselves trying to attack, the Germans might move their artillery up and advance a little further - tempting the French into counterattacking again.
Von Falkenhayn's strategy and operational methodology were brilliant. German forces had all the logistical support and battlefield efficiency they needed to see this thing through. However, the overall commander of the German forces deployed to Verdun - Crown Prince Wilhelm - decided that he would use that massive artillery park to break straight through the French lines and seize the fortress-city of Verdun. Instead of a slow, boring series of battles which von Falkenhayn would get all the credit for Wilhelm thought that he could make a name for himself by striking a major or even war-winning blow against the French by acting on his own.
The result was predictable. Wilhelm's forces outran their artillery and were utterly mulched by the French artillery. Because Wilhelm took too much territory, he then had to move his artillery several kilometres into the captured territory. This meant that instead of supplying his artillery and his men directly from the railways, he had to bridge the gap with trucks and horses. Of course, Wilhelm had not actually been given enough trucks and horses to do this. Wilhelm's attempts to keep attacking floundered given his insufficient supply of ammunition and his men's horrible losses and exhaustion. Verdun was a meatgrinder - for the Germans as well.
The reverses at the Somme and Verdun led to von Falkenhayn being sacked. Wilhelm's political clout, however, prevented them from doing likewise to him. It served as another prominent example of how politics continually interfered with the war. Prussian Militarism ensured that the Army and General's Staff was not a meritocracy where members were recruited for their battlefield prowess, but instead positions were awarded based on your standing in the aristocracy. This was not endemic to Prussian Militarism though; almost every European army has this system to a varying degree. The Germans, Austrians, Russians, and British were the most egregious about it though. Most notably, Winston Churchill got his start in this war, doubling as both a politician and a military commander.
The USA was still out of it for the same old reasons—strong isolationist fervor among the American populacenote , a worry over a possible repeat of the numbers of dead and crippled from their Civil War, doubts over the loyalty of the German immigrants who comprized a considerable amount of the country's ethnic makeup, and a perceived lack of relevance (i.e, "What does it matter to us if Europe shoots itself up?"). That said, the USA continued trade with the Entente (and the Central Powers on the rare occasions they could slip ships in) and letting them place massive orders for war-materiel with US firms. This didn't slip past Germany, which largely started unrestricted submarine warfare because of this —the Lusitania, a British ship whose sinking by a German Unterseeboot caused popular outrage in the USA note , was an unarmed passenger ship secretly (and illegally) being used to carry munitions. Germany also began trying to rile the Latin American states (Mexico in particular) against the US in order to keep it distracted.
As for Italy, PM Francesco Giolitti had made it back in 1882 one of the signatories of the Triple Alliance (that is, a defensive agreement signed by Austria-Hungary, the German Empire and the Kingdom of Italy itself); this however proved extremely unpopular with most Italians, who not only saw the Austrians as their long-time enemy but spent most of the mid-1800s fighting them during the Wars of Italian Independence. Moreover, Italy claimed some territories—namely Trentino, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Istria and Dalmatia—which not only had been part of some of the previous Italian states but were also inhabited by an ethnic Italian majority (the former two) or significant minority (the latter two). These were still under Austrian control, and the Austrians weren't willing to cede them. By 1915 most intellectuals—like Gabriele d'Annunzio—began pushing to enter the war on the Franco-British side and the rest of the public opinion followed quickly: on May 24, 1915, a formal declaration of war was sent and the Italian troops began crossing the Piave river.
The first weeks of fighting along the Alpine arch shattered any illusion of an easy victory as both armies soon became involved in a sluggish, deadly stalemate; Italy had joined a war of attrition in which whomever managed to hold the highest peak could easily shower the enemy with bombs—and the Austrians were the ones holding most of the high terrain at the start of the conflict. The Italians had to fight hard in order to even get near one such peaks, storm it (or blow it up, if necessary) and then hold it waiting for the inevitable counterattack; as if "ordinary" trench warfare wasn't pleasant enough such a mountainous, frozen hellhole claimed the lives of many. The Isonzo river also proved to be a mighty obstacle and both armies fought no less than eleven—and equally indecisive battles—in order to cross it hoping to break the enemy lines.
A senile, grade-A idiot by the name of Luigi Cadorna—whose fondness of frontal assaults nearly cost Italy the war—was in charge of the Royal Italian Army; the Austrian High Command, headed by the aforementioned Conrad von Hoetzendorf, was only slightly better. The course of the war wouldn't turn in favour of the Italians until 1917 when, after the near-total defeat at Caporetto, the Parliament realized the utter incompetency of the butcher they had appointed as Commander-in-Chief. General Armando Diaz replaced him, and the soldiers' morale soon improved (to give you an idea, soldiers under Cadorna's command not only weren't given leaves but were also held personally responsible whenever the general's plans were met by failure; those who refused to fight were summarily executed via decimation—meaning that one in ten soldiers would be chosen randomly amongst the troops and then beaten by his comrades in order "to set an example"—all while the Carabinieri were acting as barrier troops, always ready to machine-gun deserters and whomever they thought wasn't at his place...).
As 1916 drew to a close, the war had, to the common observer, changed very little. Small scraps of land had been exchanged on the Western front, the Austrian-Italian border has barely moved, and despite changing technology and an ever growing body count, the war seemed to continue as though it would last forever. Part of this was due to the We Have Reserves attitude of the various armies, and part of it was due to the new challenges faced by trench warfare. The nations involved had a near limitless resource of manpower to draw from and inexhaustible industries as their disposal, and the fronts were often close enough to the home countries that logistics could be easily sustained with modern technology. However, 1916 was, under the surface, a year of great change in the war. While the actual battles carried few territorial gains, the lessons learned from them helped to develop better tactics that would finally make the fronts a little mobile again the following year. The naval supremacy of the Entente also became apparent as German logistics began to break down, primarily because of a lack of resources. However, the Germans would gain major boosts in the coming year, as troops returned from the Eastern Front and smaller, squad-based tactics from the Stosstrupp would prove pretty effective against the Entente forces.
Meanwhile, by the end of 1916 public opinion began to shift away from the war. While 1915 acted as a bit of a wake up call, there was still hope that the war could be over by the years end if they could just get that one breakthrough that either side so desired. However, 1916 really hammered home just how futile the conflict was, as hundreds of thousands of men were sacrificed just for a few kilometers of land. As casualties started to return home and refugees from Belgium and France were dispersed from the front, the human cost of the war was no longer avoidable. Writings from the front trickled home as newspapers gave daily reports of battles occurring mere kilometers away. Zeppelins had raided as far as Great Britain, instilling the knowledge that nowhere was safe from a modern war.
The Russians started the Eastern Front according to their pre-war agreement with France, invading Germany to try to draw German forces from the push on Paris. It was something the Tsar would live to regret, the force of c.300,000 men sent there lost nearly 200,000 men killed or (overwhelmingly) captured at the hands of the 120,000 German troops that caught them by surprise with a well-executed counter-offensive (at Tannenburg and The Masurian Lakes). As if to add insult to injury, the troops the Germans did redeploy didn't arrive until after the two Russian armies were all but destroyed. However, the main effort on the Eastern Front was supposed to have been the Austro-Hungarian offensive against Russia (done to cover Germany's back so she could march on Paris with her full strength, as per pre-war agreement), but this failed spectacularly with the Austro-Hungarian army actually being pushed back by the Russian counter-offensive.
The Russians under performed on nearly all accounts, not due to the quality of their troops but due to the sheer incompetence of their leadership. The Officer Corps as a whole was largely composed of men from the lower- and middle-classesnote . However, appointment to the post of Division-Commander and above (corps, more so army, and especially Front) had a lot to do with your political connections to the Grand Dukes, the Ministry, and to a lesser extent the General Staff. There was a lot of talent in the lower ranks and truly brilliant commanders could be found as high as at Corps-level (which is where the General Staff 'discovered' Alexei Brusilov). But even their abilities were more than negated by those of their superiors.
The entire year of 1914 was marred by setbacks for Austria-Hungary. The Serbian front opened with a similar plan to the Schlieffen Plan in which Austria-Hungary would smash through Serbia before Russia could mobilize against them. The Austro-Hungarians had hoped by that point that the Balkan Front wouldn't expand any more than it did. Unfortunately for the Central Powers, Serbia did well in the opening hostilities. Despite still being in a state of recovery from the Balkan Wars and lacking the equipment to even field a full army (some of its troops still wore civilian garb), the Serbians were able to win, mostly by massive tactical oversights by the Austrian command.
The Austro-Hungarian general on the field was Oskar Potiorek. Potiorek wanted to win the campaign before Franz Joseph's birthday and, like many generals of the early war, he was both overly ambitious and over-confident. This led him to the Battle of Cer, in which he made the tactical mishaps of attacking the fortified Serbs in hilly terrain and with only half his strength. The Serbian command thought the notion of it being an actual attack was simply too stupid, but when it became clear that this was indeed the real offensive and not a feint to draw away attention, the Serbs brought in reinforcements and won.
Although the share of bad tactical decisions did not belong only to Potiorek. The Serbs were pressured by the Entente (Russia, in particular) to launch an offensive into Austria-Hungary. This idea was very bad, as the under-supplied and under-equipped Serbs could barely manage a defensive war, let alone an offensive one. Potiorek decided to take the chance to attack the less defended Serbian homeland, and he crossed the Drina River with his troops. The Serbs were indeed caught off guard, but the river crossing was perilous enough that the Austro-Hungarian armies lost the initial engagements. But before long, the Serbs were beaten back and withdrew into the hills, and the Austro-Hungarians gained a toe-hold across the river. The Serbians set up for trench warfare, but they were outmatched in this regard because of the artillery advantage of the Austro-Hungarians.
The Austro-Hungarians finally forced them back and took Belgrade on December 2nd of 1914, but the Serbs wouldn't give up so easily. Before the Austro-Hungarians could recoup, the entire Serbian army came down and them and sent them into a massive retreat on December 3rd. The Austro-Hungarians fled back across the Drina as 1914 came to an end, and as they had been on the Marne, the hopes of a quick victory were shattered on the Drina.
Meanwhile, just to the East, the Austro-Hungarians had botched what should have been a rather easy front. The Austrians, at the start of the war, held the Carpathian Mountains. Like most mountain ranges, this gave them an extremely disproportionate advantage and would be a nearly insurmountable natural obstacle for the Russians. Well, would be. The reality was that the incompetent Austrian General's Staff refused to give an inch of ground to the advancing Russians. Instead of withdrawing to the natural barriers in the mountains and letting the Russians fling themselves in a hopeless war of attrition, they decided instead to engage in a hopeless defense of Galicia. This left four armies routing after decisive defeats by the Russians. The turmoil caused by this enabled the Russians to surround a massive Austrian force at the mountain town of Przemyśl. For the bulk of 1914 and 1915, nearly 100,000 men were besieged in the mountains. This was the front where the Russians actually saw some success, under the clever leadership of figures like Brusilov. The Austrians tried three time to relieve Przemyśl, launching offensives into the mountains, sometimes in the middle of winter. Thousands of men froze to death in these incompetently arranged battles, and by 1915 the Galician Front was pretty much a lost cause. The Germans eventually took over full control of the Austrian army on this front and began to reverse some of these defeats, but it was a huge blow to the Central Powers for Austria-Hungary to lose so many men so early into the war, especially because it didn't have nearly as vast a reserve of manpower as Germany or Russia.
Most importantly, that winter the Ottomans tried to invade Georgia. The Russians fared a little better against the Ottomans, who were somehow in an even more hopeless position. They began the Bergman Offensive in 1914, pushing against Ottoman forces in the Caucasus. The Russians would start using Armenian volunteer regiments. This "betrayel" against the Ottomans would be cited as one of the reasons for the Armenian genocide later into the war. The Russians saw success at both the Battle of Ardahan and the Battle of Sarikamish. Sarikamish was a complete and utter defeat for the Ottomans. As with Galicia, the Ottomans had a natural defensive barrier in the Caucuses, but instead they chose to advance onward under the guidance of Enver Pasha. Enver Pasha was inexperienced with commanding a large volume of troops. He had originally been a Major in the Ottoman army, but he suddenly found himself promoted due to his political contacts that he gained during the Young Turks revolution. He was put in command of the entire Caucuses Theater, and he proved to be miserable with it. His offensives were some of the most tactically incompetent of the whole war, advancing up mountains towards strategically unimportant villages with strained supply lines and an overwhelming Russian force confronting him. He lost a staggering 90,000 men. The whole army turned in full flight after Hafiz Hakka Pasha ordered them to. Enver, fearing a loss of political clout, blamed the failure of the offensive on the Christian Armenians. While it is true that many Armenians served in the Russian army or as partisans fighting against the Ottomans, the source of the failure of the offensive was almost squarely on Enver. However, he was in too great a position to be fully threatened, and thus he continued to command from Istanbul. His accusations against the Armenians would later factor in to their deportation and genocide.
Millions of Armenians were rounded up. First, they were removed from all positions in the army, moved to reserves and logistics. Then, massacres were committed in many Armenian villages. Enver Pasha then gave the order to deport Armenians away from the front. They were subsequently sent to Syria. Many died on the long marches where they were marched to exhaustion and given no food or provisions. Those who didn't perish during the death marches were left in the desert without facilities or provisions, where they promptly starved. The survivors were rounded up and placed in concentration camps. The death toll was an unprecedented 1.5 million people. The whole genocide was very deliberate and calculated, giving a glimpse of what the disturbing future would bring.
Despite the failure of the Ottomans, the Central Powers continued to push onward clear into 1915, winning a victory at the Second Battle of Masurian Lakes. They also launched a successful offensive in Galicia after the Germans took command of that front, and began to expel the Russians from their far western territory. By the end of 1915, the Russians would be fully driven out of Poland.
Russia did very badly for a reason; their soldiers fought as bravely as any others, but the army was still set-up like an eighteenth-century fighting force; there was a General Staff but it was seriously underfunded and actually had to wrestle with the Ministry of Defence and the Grand Dukes of the Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery in each and every single matter from funding allocations to strategic priorities. In practice the Ministry ended up appointing both Front commanders for the Northern and Southern Fronts, but the General Staff ended up appointing the Front commanders' assistants, and both parties wrangled to appoint the Army commanders (100-200k combat troops), Corps commanders (20-50k troops), and Division commanders (10-20k) who served under them. This contributed to the critical dysfunction of the Russian army as both Front Commanders and several of the Army Commanders under them did not work towards the strategic needs of the Russian War Effort as a whole or their front in particular, respectively: they largely did their own thing and had to be bought or bullied into acting in accordance with any plans.
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 . 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.
By the end of 1914 the situation on the Eastern Front had settled into an odd equilibrium. The Eastern Entente had been totally beaten by the Germans, but had beaten the Austrians and Ottomans, meaning that no one really held the advantage as they geared up for 1915. Unfortunately for the Entente, the situation wouldn't persist for long: with the Western Front stalemated, Germany was sending ever-greater forces to the Eastern Front, while Serbia remained isolated from her allies. Worse, the war was beginning to expose Russia's relative economic weakness compared to her foes: Russia had been left behind by the Industrial Revolution (serfdom had only been abolished in 1861), and couldn't keep up with the logistical demands of a war on three fronts. Essentially, Russia had plenty of manpower, but not the means to keep them adequately armed and fed, and the closure of the Turkish straits meant that Russia was cut off from trade and resupply by its more industrially-advanced allies. If this situation were allowed to persist, the Entente recognized that Russia's war effort would enter a death spiral until defeat or revolution knocked them out of the war (in the event, this is exactly what happened). The British and French wracked their brains over what they could do to help.
This led to what is widely considered one of the greatest military blunders of the war—the Gallipoli Campaign. Orchestrated primarily by Winston Churchill, the idea was that before the Ottoman Army could be reconstituted a small but elite Entente force would open the Dardanelles. At one swoop this would allow Russia to sell her raw materials and particularly food to the wider world again (pre-war she'd been heavily dependent on exporting goods through the straits), allow the giant back-log of munitions the Russians had bought from her allies and the USA to be delivered at a higher rate, and probably take the Ottomans out of the war. It all seemed to be such a good idea.
Except the Ottoman Army wasn't quite gone, and the people the Entente assigned to command the operation proved to be extremely uninspired choices. The all-naval attempt faltered on against the straits' coastal fortifications and initial landing attempts blundered about until the Turks figured out what was happening and counter-attacked, establishing a solid front. Increasing the size of the Entente force to take the strait didn't help, because supply constraints (they lacked a proper port, railways, and proper roads) meant they weren't able to field a force large enough to overcome that of the Ottomans. The Russians weren't able to help either, because Austria-Hungary and Germany went on the offensive against Russia that summer (starting by hammering away at the Southern Polish Front again). Australian and New Zealander national consciousness were given a certain kick-start as a result of the whole debacle, what with their ANZAC troops facing their first major campaign in it.
By then the war looked bleak for Russia. With the failure of Gallipoli, they had little hope to get relief from the Ottomans or to get supplies through the Black Sea. The Russians resumed the Offensive at the Battle of Malazgirt, trying to break the Ottomans, who were the weakest link in the Central Powers. The conditions in the hills were rough, and in the end neither side was ready. The Russians may have "won", but in the end the line changed very little and both sides sustained casualties. Furthermore, the Ottomans regrouped and reorganized efficiently following the battle. Needless to say the front was going poorly, and by 1916 things were slowing down. The Russians may have been advancing, albeit slowly, but both sides were taking huge losses and the Russians were facing strategic troubles from the north. They had managed to drive them out with key battles at Erzican and Van, which was a siege by the Ottomans not against the Russians, but against the Armenian resistance.
It was by now that the Serbs had finally been conquered. The combined forces were able to conquer their country, but only after two years of brutal resistance. Greece would be coerced into the war after heated negotiation. The idea of who to side with, if anyone at all, drove Greece into basically a mini-Civil War. Before things got out of hand, King Constantine I resigned and his son, Alexander, put Greece firmly in with the Entente. However, later that year the Central powers also got a boost when Bulgaria entered their side of the war. Bulgaria was eager to retake territory from Serbia and the other Balkan states, and their decision was motivated by Russian losses in 1914-1915 and the failure of the Entente at Gallipoli.
With these ill tidings, the Serbs were finally defeated after the Germans, the Austro-Hungarians, and the Bulgarians all ganged up on them. Although some French and British forces had arrived to help, the bulk of the action still fell on the Serbs. The Serbian army was forced into a full retreat. They fled their country into neutral Albania and from there they would go on to help the Entente and reclaim their country late in the war. Still, for now, things looked bleak for the Entente on the Eastern front. Russia was being defeated time and time again, offensives into Ottoman lands had failed and supply shipments through the Black Sea were still too perilous. Serbia had been defeated. Montenegro fell in 1916.
Romania entered the war on the Entente side in 1916 hoping to gain the largely ethnic Romanian territory of Transylvanianote ,and promptly got defeated thanks to poor training, horrible planning and (historically completely understandable) distrust of Russia.
It's worth noting that the only Russian offensive that actually succeeded, the 'Brusilov Offensive' of 1916 under Corps-Commander Brusilov of the Southern Front, succeeded even though he used barely any shells; he was the head of a small faction who realized that Mobile Warfare was actually possible on The Eastern Front because of the massive distances involved—though the forces on The Western Front were nearly as big as those on the East, the 'front' was only a fifth as long (though much, much better-supplied given the far-better rail infrastructure)! His offensive was considered a mere 'experiment', however, and he was only allowed to try it out on the condition that he wouldn't be given any more men or ammunition than normal—there was a 'serious' offensive planned by the Northern Front which was meant to do the 'real' work of distracting Germany from Verdun. The fact that his rapid-movement-and-encirclement approach succeeded when the massive-prolonged-bombardment-and-frontal-attack precedents of 1914-15 and counterpart of 1916 failed was regarded as a kind of fluke and completely ignored. Worse still, the offensive by the Northern Front consumed the manpower and munitions which (technically) Brusilov could have used to mop up the routing Austro-Hungarian forces and break the back of their army for good. As it was, the Northern Offensive consumed vast numbers of men and went nowhere, and the Austro-Hungarian Army was allowed to regroup and was put under the Germans' direct command note
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 food-exporting (exporting 14%+ of annual grain output) 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 . 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 . What happened was the de facto dissolution of the entire Russian State as the Ministries stood idle and the soldiers of the former-Army were told to go home... and did so. Shortly thereafter, when The Central Powers kept advancing on Leningrad and Moscow despite the laughably ineffectual attempts of the Soviets' tiny forces of Revolutionary Militia to stop them, the Bolsheviks signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in which they ceded Poland, The Baltic Territories, Belorussia, and The Ukraine to Germany and Austria-Hungary. By the end of 1918, Russia had descended into Civil War with the Bolsheviks/Communists/Soviets/'The Reds' using a new 'Red Army' they had originally created (recruiting from the ranks of the old Imperial army, including virtually the entire former-General Staff) to defend Russia from the Central Powers, having recognized as they did that they needed a proper army in case the Germans went on the offensive again and tried to destroy their regime because they were Dirty Communists. The former-Grand Dukes and nobility, the remnants of the Ministry, and the commanders associated with them rose up against them to lead a faction of ex-servicemen known as 'The Whites', and virtually the entire Russian Imperial countryside refused to have anything to do with either faction and actively fought them both as 'The Greens'.
The new Bolshevik government signed a hasty peace with Germany that was quite excessive. It granted freedom to the Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Belorussians, and also ceded Poland to Germany. All of these states were put under German control and assigned to German nobles as a way of implementing the German Mitteleuropa plan, which was basically a plan drawn up in the 19th century in which the Germans would dominate Continental Europe through a massive power bloc of loyal Eastern European states. Many of these states would be left to their own devices after the war. Poland and the Baltic States would survive the ensuing chaos but Ukraine was conquered again during the Russian Civil War. The treaty also granted territory to the Ottomans, although unlike the Germans they could not enforce it as it was in the hands of partisans.
By 1917, things were also going poorly for the Ottoman Empire (well, truthfully the whole war had gone poorly for them since day one). Germany, as they did with Austria-Hungary, had sent troops to support the crumbling Ottoman armies. They were struggling under nationalist revolt in Armenia and being pushed steadily backwards by the Anglo-Egyptian forces creeping up through Palestine. The British had forced an offensive into Iraq and the Ottomans failed to dislodge them, and the Ottoman army had been browbeaten by supply shortages and near constant fighting. Desertion rates skyrocketed and the under-supplied, under-manned army began to crumble. The Arabs revolted with British support and thoroughly whooped the little remaining Ottoman resistance. Despite a favorable armistice with Russia, Armenia had revolted and successfully repulsed the Ottoman attacks. While the Ottomans scored minor victories against Anglo-Egyptian forces, it was plain for all too see that they had lost. In October of 1918, the Ottomans finally conceded their defeat and signed the Armistice of Mudros. They awaited the inevitable partitioning of their empire.
The War at Sea is probably the front of World War One that has received the least focus. Unlike World War II, which featured massive naval battles in the Pacific that capture the idealized view of the war, World War Is naval combat was not as glamorous nor as interesting. Pitched battles were uncommon and those that did happen were often smaller than those of World War II. Still, it was crucial to the Entente success of the late war and indeed the War at Sea may have been the only thing that stopped the Central Powers from winning.
Prior to the war, there was a huge naval arms race between the two world naval powers; Britain and Germany. For almost all of its history Germany had been a land-based military power. Bismarck and his contemporaries believed maintaining a continental power in Europe on land was the key to Germanys success, but Kaiser Wilhelm II saw things differently. He believed Germany should achieve international glory by gaining overseas colonies. Thus he began the construction of a new navy as a prestige project and a source of national pride—setting the target-size at 2/3rds the size of Great Britains. Britain was concerned, because a slow-moving fleet of battleships would be useless for fending off France's fleet of fast-moving commerce-raiding 'cruiser' ships, but it would be able to counter Britain's own (somewhat aged) fleet of battleships. What sparked the arms-race in earnest was the development of a new type of Capital (super-big) Ship that was half again more powerful and faster than its predecessors.
The HMS Dreadnought was a battleship equipped with ultra-modern mechanical computing machines, steam turbines, and 'target-range finding' equipment that made use of some of the very latest advances in mathematics and engineering. This meant that her ten big guns note could accurately hit a target several kilometres away rather than just a few hundred metres away.
Pre-Dreadnought Battleships were equipped with dozens of smaller, but less powerful, guns that could fire several kilometres and were expected to do most of the work in destroying enemy ships—by getting a lucky shot on a ships 'bridge'note or simply hitting it with so many hundreds of shells over the course of several hours that it would either surrender or catch fire and blow up.note . The new Dreadnought-type Battleships, however, could sink another Battleship in just a couple of dozen shots and within just a few tens of minutes. This started a race to equip the battleships of the world with these new 'computing machines' and 'rangefinders', and all new-build battleships were designed with the innovations of the Dreadnought in mind. In the post-Dreadnought period British ships specialized in an absurd output of fire, with massive guns and quicker fire rates. German ships were designed more on superior targeting optics and maneuverability. Other ship types such as battlecruisers, destroyers, and submarines (such as the German U-Boat) would be integral to the war, but the battleship was dominant. Some new forces like radio became important to naval combat as well.
Naval combat during the war occurred all across the Earth, from Jutland to the Pacific. Entente shipping sent troops from India, weapons and supplies from America, and food from abroad to places like Great Britain and France. The German fleet was largely scattered around the globe, hunting this shipping. German U-Boats harassed Entente shipping well into the war. The Entente retaliated with their own ships, hunting the scattered raiders and submarines all across the globe. Because of the nature of this search and destroy style of warfare, there were few large naval engagements. Still, there were some massive battles of note:
The first of the major battles was fought on the 28th of August, 1914, off the Helgioland Bight (the German Coast). It was a trend setter for the rest of the war. The British ambushed the unsuspecting Germans and did heavy damage, sinking several German ships. The outcome of the battle was hardly surprising, as the Germans were badly outmatched strength-wise. The Brits returned home victorious, only losing one cruiser. The German Fleet was once again restricted to port as the British gained control of the North Sea with little opposition. That dominance would not ever be shaken through the course of the war, although the Germans would challenge it at the Battle of Jutland. The Battle of Dogger Bank on the 24th of January, 1915, was far less conclusive. The British intercepted orders about a raiding squadron and went to engage them. They caught the Germans unaware and right where expected, but the German ships turned tail and ran. The British managed to catch up far enough to get in range, and sunk the SMS Blücher at the cost of one of their own flagships being disabled and having to leave the battle line. Due to a communications mix up, the British disengaged and the rest of the German squadron made it home in one piece.
Across the globe in Asia, the German East Asian Squadron had been commerce raiding in the Pacific. Comprised of various cruisers, it was originally based in the German port of Tsingtao in China, before the Japanese entered the war and seized it from them. The Squadron had been hunting for a while, but a lack of safe harbors in the Pacific meant that they were running low on crucial supplies. Maximilian Von Spee made the decision to withdraw from the Pacific and beeline it for safe ports in South America. Once they restocked, they would set out to Europe. The Squadron could've made a significant change in future battles. The British were wary about giving Germany's Kreigsmarine any more ships or support, so they dispatched their own squadron to intercept the ships. The finally met off the Falklands as the Germans just crossed into Atlantic waters. In the end, the East Asia Squadron was caught completely off guard and was completely destroyed. The British suffered few casualties and no ships. Had Von Spee made it to Europe, his ships could've been a decisive addition to Germany's fleet. As it stands, this relatively minor battle proved to be fairly important in the grand scheme of the war.
The largest engagement of the war fittingly happened very close to one of the largest land battles of the war, the Battle of the Somme. The Battle of Jutland, also known as the Battle of Skaggerak happened on the 31st of May in 1916. It was the first and only clash of battleships in the war, and one of the largest naval battles in all of history. Jutland proved inconclusive. Although the Germans scored a tactical victory by outmaneuvering their foes in the course of a panicked retreat from what otherwise would have been annihilation, the British still drove their fleet to harbor, where they remained for the rest of the war. German historians claim/ed that it was a Pyrrhic Victory for Germany, as Britain suffered heavier losses in terms of ships and men, including three of their Fragile Speedster 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 note and spent the rest of the war in home waters, whilst the British quickly replenished their own losses. The issue ultimately became moot when the United States entered the war, which added its considerable fleet of dreadnoughts (the third largest in the world) to the Grand Fleet, tipping the naval balance of power prohibitively in the favor of the Entente.
Why were these battles important? Well, maintaining dominance of the North Sea and other waters around the globe was integral to the British war effort. Their plan called for a blockade of German ports so nothing could get in or out. This ruined the German economy and led to massive raw-material note and food shortages in 1917-18, eventually culminating in full-on food riots as the economy teetered on the brink of total collapse.
The battles weren't just restricted to the North Sea. Skirmishes were fought across the globe. In the Atlantic, shipping from the (then neutral) USA was threatened by the U-boats. The Germans, already under blockade, were trying to cut-off the British Isles from their overseas supplies. Although numerous merchant vessels were sunk, the sheer amount of allies or neutral powers lending arms, ammo, food, and supplies to Britain offset this cost. The U-boat blockade never neared the effectiveness of the British blockade of the German ports. Food supplies and other goods did dwindle in Britain, but there was a heavy price to pay, as the US would intervene in the war after the sinking of the Lusitania.
The Mediterranean didn't see any real battles besides the attack on Gallipoli, but the Adriatic sea saw the birth of asymmetric naval warfare. The Italians, realising the inferiority of their fleet, began using small motorboats which had been modified to hold and launch torpedoes; two such vessels managed to sink the Austrian warships Szent Istvan and Viribus Unitis while they were moored in the harbour at Pola. The Italian Regia Marina (Royal Navy) was also the first to employ frogmen.
The neighboring Black Sea, however, saw more action. The Ottoman fleet was vastly outmatched by the Russians, but the Germans lent them two of their ships from their own Mediterranean fleet. This caused the action to sway back and forth before Russia finally gained control over the Black Sea... just before their revolution forced them out of the war in 1917.
In the rest of the world, the German East Asia Squadron scored a number of early victories before being mopped up by the Entente. At Coronel off Chile Germany's only powerful global flotilla under Maximillian von Spee inflicted severe casualties on a British squadron, before being wiped out themselves off the Falkland Islands. The light cruiser SMS Emden bombarded Chennai and destroyed a Russo-French squadron in the Straits of Malacca before it was caught and destroyed by the HMAS Syndey off Cocos. The SMS Konigsberg menaced the British in Africa before being wrecked in the Rufiji Delta. A combined British/Japanese operation (under Japanese command) took the German-held port of Qingdao in China. This action is notable for highlighting The Empire of Japan's new place in world affairs and featuring the first naval air raid, launched from the Japanese seaplane tender Wakamiya—the shape of things to come. The last German warship outside the North Sea, the SMS Dresden, was ambushed whilst coaling at Cumberland Bay in Chile and destroyed by the cruisers HMS Glasgow and HMS Kent in 1915.
Also of note was Operation F.7, also known as the Tondern Raid, where seven British fighters bombed a German Zeppelin base. What made this raid particularly significant was the fighters' base: HMS Furious, a battlecruiser which had been heavily refit, removing her armament and installing launch and recovery decks fore and aft of the superstructure (Furious, as originally designed, had proven to be rather impractical, her two guns being too big for her to fire safely). Which is to say that this was the first carrier raid in naval history. They bombed two hangars, destroying a pair of Zeppelins and an observation balloon, and in return one pilot was lost at sea and three others interned in neutral Denmark, where they landed due to lack of fuel.
The War at Sea had a huge impact on the Central Powers' logistical network. They could not produce enough horses, fuel, ammo, medicine, staple food, and luxuries (coffee, tea, chocolate, tobacco, and liquor were huge boons to morale when widely available and drains on it when not) to maintain their forces' fighting efficiency and morale. The handful of Commerce Submarines like the famed SMS Deutschland could only supply German industry with the very rarest elements it needed to maintain production, and in general supplying the army with the essentials could only be achieved by taking things from the civilian population—pissing them off royally. The Germans may not have started The Great War, but they sure as hell ended it. The German people basically had a revolution because of the ruinous effect the war had on the German people and economy. The Kaiser would flee to the Netherlands. The victory was essentially owed to the navies of the Entente, especially because the Kaiserliche Marine would end up mutinying near the end of the war. Had the Kaiser's fleet succeeded in fighting off the British, Germany may have had more luck importing and exporting critical goods. With that influx of goods, things such as the Spring Offensive may have gone much better and maybe even succeeded, and the Central Powers could have stretched the war out for months or even years longer (and maybe even reached a negotiated peace). In the end the Kaiser's fleet, his pride and joy that he had spent years building—raising like a child!—failed him.
The British had a mini-conflict all of their own in Ireland, where the Easter Rising took place. Ironically, the war had seemed to Britain like a golden opportunity to submerge Irish tensions (which were getting close to bursting over the issue of Home Rule)... but, like just about every other war aim, things went badly wrong.
It is important to note that this war has almost always been called some form of "The World War" for a reason. Participants from all 6 inhabited continents of the globe would fight in the war, directly or indirectly. The ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) fought in Gallipoli, Europe, and would also occupy German Samoa and New Guinea. Japan and Britain worked to take Germany's Micronesian colonies, as well as fight at the important battle of Tsingtao, seizing the German colonies in China along with British support. Japan had operated under the idea that they would be rewarded for their efforts by basically being given these territories. In fact, the Japanese had grand plans of Empire-building in the Pacific and uniting the Asian peoples under one flag pretty much since the Boshin War and their start as Imperial Japan. However, Japan was given very little compensation in the end and, much like Italy, they switched to the opposing side in World War II. By 1914, all German colonies in the Pacific were seized.
India was at the heart of Britain's war effort, though this fact is often overlooked. Over one million Indians served in World War One, fielding numerous cavalry units (alongside the Australians) and support units. British-Indian 'martial race' theory and the Caste System limited the number of Indian ethnicities and the people within those ethnicities who could serve as soldiers until 1917, when The Raj reclassified 75 races as 'martial races'. This was done at the same time as conscription was instituted in Britain (1916) and Canada (1917) to plug the massive and growing gaps in the manpower pool created by the 1916 and 1917 offensives. India's industrial contribution was also critical, with her putting forth more war material than any other Commonwealth country save Britain herself.
The African front was one of the longest campaigns of the war. German colonies in Togo and Cameroon were seized (once again by the end of 1914) but not for lack of trying; the Germans did score some victories at the Battle of Nsanakong and the Battle of Garua. The African theatre was where India made its most critical contributions: there the need for good-quality forces was lower, Britain herself could field very few cavalry units, and ethnic-European doctors were forbidden to treat African soldiers in hospitals for African troops (European and non-European troops had separate hospitals due to Racial Separation/Apartness/Apart-heid considerations). While the British had no particular qualms about using a non-Europeans of any non-European ethnicity in a non-European theatre, including Africans, the overwhelming majority of Medical and Engineer units in Africa were Indian because they had so many qualified doctors and engineers.
Germany's Cameroonian colony would hold out until 1916. The only front where Germany clearly won was in German East Africa. German commander Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck managed to tie down 300,000 Entente troops (mostly Indians and Africans) with a far smaller force of 14,000 mostly-African soldiers. He was said to be a Father to His Men and, in stark contrast to other German colonial commanders and his opponents in the African Theatre, he actually treated the native troops as equals! He fought through the whole war and only surrendered in late November 1918, after being informed by the British (while he was making plans for another offensive) that Germany herself had already surrendered.
Fighting also occurred in the Middle East by a mix of British-Indian-Australian forces, the revolting Arabs, and the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire, being the "sick man of Europe" that is was, failed to put up a lot of meaningful resistance in these campaigns, as the British trained and supplied Arabs were able to harass them with guerrilla tactics while the British and Egyptians did the bulk of the actual fighting. Although German forces would be sent to bolster Ottoman ranks, it was clearly not enough, and the Kaiser knew that full well. The Ottomans had made many enemies and were already struggling internally before the war. After the Entente victory the Ottoman Empire disintegrated entirely, losing its territory to the Entente, then being overthrown by Mustafa Kemal's nationalists.
Besides the aforementioned Caucasus and Gallipoli Campaigns, the main Middle Eastern theaters were in Palestine and Mesopotamia. The former began with a failed Turkish attack on the Suez Canal in February 1915, easily repulsed by the British. After two years of inconclusive fighting in the Sinai Peninsula, General Archibald Murray was ordered to push into Palestine and capture Jerusalem. In spring 1917, Murray launched two disastrous attacks on Turkish troops at Gaza. He was soon replaced by General Edmund Allenby, who overcame the Turks through a surprise attack on Beersheba (the Turkish army's main water supply) and captured Jerusalem in December 1917. With assistance from Arab rebels, Allenby smashed the remaining Turks in the Battle of Megiddo the following September, capturing Damascus and Aleppo before Turkey sued for peace.
In conjunction with the Palestinian campaign, Arab forces led by Sherif Hussein of Mecca were encouraged to rise against the Turks. Hussein was promised an independent Arab kingdom spreading north from the Hejaz to Palestine and Syria, ignorant of conflicting British promises to Zionists (the Balfour Declaration) and France (the Sykes-Picot Agreement). The Arab irregulars mostly harassed Turkish lines of supply and communication, but they did seize the Red Sea ports of Aqaba and Wejh and played a major role in Allenby's final campaign. Though Hussein's son Feisal installed himself as King of Syria, the Arabs soon found the British giving precedence to French ambitions.
British intervention in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) began in November 1914 with a limited landing to secure the oil fields at Basra. Eventually British troops began pushing northwards towards Baghdad, initially meeting little resistance. Major General Charles Townshend led a corps-sized unit to attack Baghdad in late 1915; his force was defeated, besieged at Kut el-Amara and forced to surrender in February 1916, a humiliating blow to British prestige. A reinforced British army under Stanley Maude arrived the following year, capturing Baghdad in March 1917 and declaring a British protectorate. However, Turkish troops held northern Iraq until the end of the war.
Besides these major theaters, there were also several minor campaigns by the British and Russians in ostensibly-neutral Persia, and the Turks launched several failed attacks on the British colony in Yemen between 1914 and 1915. In Italian-held Libya, German agents inspired an uprising by the Senussi tribe, which attacked both British and Italian forces from 1914-1916. Senussi resistance to Italian rule continued sporadically for decades.
Brazil would join the Entente for a similar reason to the USA; Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare had killed Brazilians and destroyed Brazilian ships. Their navy teamed up with the British to hunt down the remnants of Germany's naval forces. Siam, despite having little stake in the conflict, contributed a small expeditionary force which served on the Western Front.
Still, the war saw the inevitable end of Germany's colonial enterprises, but it put a surprising strain on the Entente's colonies as well. The massive loss of life on India's part had caused a massive divide between them and the British. Before, many Indians believed that Western civilization was a good force, but after seeing the devastation wrought by the First World War, there was a much larger outcry for independence. Other Commonwealth states felt similarly about their loyalty to Britain. It is also worth noting that there was a multitude of rebellions in Africa and elsewhere during the war.
Two events in 1917 transformed the stalemate into a fight to the finish: the collapse of Tsarist Russia, and the entry of the United States. The Russian Civil War knocked Russia out of the war permanently, freeing up some 500,000 experienced German troops for the Western Front. For the first time since 1914, the two sides would have near-numerical parity in the French theater. But not for long. Continued unrestricted submarine warfare and meddling in the American hemisphere like the Zimmermann Telegramnote by the Germans had finally goaded the U.S. into joining the war on the side of the Entente. The reasoning was simple; the US would gain prestige and would honor their alliances while avoiding the bloodiest parts of the war, and could gain huge influence by being present in the peace negotiations (not to mention this would ensure that the Entente would still be around to pay off the considerable tab they had run up with American banks). America's entry had huge ramifications for the war: the United States was now the world's biggest industrial and economic power, backed up by a formidable navy and a population (and thus available manpower) as large as the rest of the principal Entente powers put together. American troops made haste to the front, despite frantic German efforts to step up their unrestricted submarine warfare. Despite their lack of experience, tactics, and training, the sheer number of American troops arriving in Europe threatened to turn the tide irrevocably towards the Entente. Meanwhile, subsequent victories against the Ottomans resulted in the occupation of most of their territory, coupled with the Arab Revolt, and the freeing up of several new independent states. The Ottomans were all but defeated, and with the arrival of the Americans 1917 seemed like the beginning of the end for the Central Powers.
However, the Germans were hardly ready to throw in the towel. With the arrival of the forces they gained from the Russian Civil War, the Germans had the time and resources for one last, big gamble. The Germans launched an ambitious but poorly-organized series of attacks under the name 'Operation Michael'—better known as 'The Spring Offensive'—in a final winner-take-all gambit to... something, though the general impression is that it was an attempt to weaken The Entente before the US could begin to deploy forces rivaling the French and Commonwealth for size. The offensive was aimed at the British, considered the softer nut of Germany's two principal enemies, with the nominal objective of separating them from the French and throwing them into the sea. 'Nominal', because in practice this aim was a bit vague and wasn't planned-out or pursued with any real dedication or persistence.
The Germans seem to have assumed that the use of some new battlefield tactics would be enough to win the war for them. These built on those used at Verdun and Somme and by Brusilov, and made use of small infiltration-and-assault units (later called Storm-troopers) to make tactical breakthroughs—the idea being that the minimal use of artillery would minimize the need to repair roads and railway-lines, theoretically making an operational breakthrough (after enough tactical breakthroughs) possible. However, German engineering and logistics hadn't been reformed since 1914 (and so were still relatively inefficient) and their capabilities had diminished due to the wartime loss of horses. While Entente logistics, on the other hand, were only marginally more efficient than they had been when the war started (thanks to some cosmetic reforms) their absolute capabilities had dramatically improved thanks to the continual war-time purchase of horses and even motor-vehicles from the outside world (and particularly the USA, which during the war had indisputably become the world's largest single economy).
The initial 'successes' of the new tactics (in making tactical breakthroughs) are at least partly due to the fact that the British forces were experiencing an organisational crisis at the time, with as few as half the troops in any given 'front-line' unit being available being for actual fightingnote . But then the usual problems (and worse) manifested—weak logistics meant that the storm-troops weren't getting food or ammo or rest, whereas their more-numerous enemies had plenty of all three. The result was that the storm troopers quickly ran out of steam and began suffering staggering casualties that were completely irreplaceable. Likewise, the French were also suffering morale problems and even faced a mutiny in 1917.
This was not helped by the way that the Germans' commanders did their usual thing and abandoned the nominal aim of the offensive when their progress started to slow, moving instead to attack the French and try to advance on Paris. This was due in part to a hesitancy to take more casualties, as Germany was on the verge of falling apart from the sustained attrition of four years of two-fronted war. Unfortunately, this resulted, if anything, in more casualties later on when the Germans failed to make any kind of substantial headway. By striking out where opportunity offered, the Germans did gain territory, but territory that was mostly useless and exposed their troops to Entente counterattacks. This culminated in the Second Battle of the Marne. The initial part of the battle was, as the previous parts of the offensive had been, a limited success for the Germans, who managed to cross the river itself and set up positions. However, they encountered heavy resistance, particularly from American units like the 3rd US Infantry Division, nicknamed forever after "The Rock of the Marne" for their steadfast resistance. More reinforcements, mostly American but some British, stalled the German advance before they could consolidate their gains on the other side of the river. Casualty-wise, the Entente suffered a few more but the Germans were weakening from attrition, and the Entente could now call on virtually limitless American troops. The end was near. Yet despite the setbacks and general failure of Operation Michael, it was still the closest the Germans would ever come since 1914 to ending the war on favorable terms.
The Entente, sensing the Germans had exhausted their offensive capabilities, began what is called "The Hundred Days Offensive," a continent-wide series of offensives by the Entente intended to push the Germans out of France and finally end the war. The Germans were pushed back after Entente intelligence found weaknesses in their positions, and the Germans were routed back across the Marne. Every loss counted against the Germans: the Hundred Days offensive alone cost each side a million men, but while the Entente could call on American reserves to replace their non-combat troops and free up their own more experienced soldiers for fighting units, Germany's manpower was utterly exhausted. Furthermore, many German troops, demoralized by four years of war, the Spanish Flu and millions of Americans arriving at the front, surrendered outright. This was truly the beginning of the end of the war, and from here on out the Germans would never really have a chance at defeating the Entente forces and getting anything close to favorable peace terms.
Much of this was due to the German home front. The British had succeeded in winning the crucial—but often neglected in textbooks—"War at Sea" and were able to turn back the German navy and blockade the country. German agriculture was highly inefficient, with many small farms being relied upon to churn out food. Thus, much of Germany's food supply was imported, and the blockade effectively ruined that. Furthermore, it limited Germany's logistical ability, such as the lack of horses mentioned above. They couldn't bring in any supplies, and in some ways the even worse effect was the fact that they couldn't export any supplies. Without being able to sell products abroad, the German economy tanked under the strain of war. The German economy was on the brink of collapse, with the Mark constantly changing in value often by the hour (resulting in workers going in to work and being paid less than what they should, as the currency value had changed so much during the day that their eventual pay was worth even less). This inflation made the Mark useful only as fuel for furnaces. Industrial output had dropped sharply, morale had collapsed, medical supplies were low and there were few new recruits to replace the staggering losses. Anti-War protests became frequent and many people were discontented with the Kaiser's rule due to the war. The Hundred Days Offensive marked the final nail in the coffin. The Entente were able to push the demoralized German troops back to Amiens, but as resistance grew they diverted attention elsewhere. The Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line. The German High Command realized the war was lost and even the Kaiser saw that it must come to an end. Moreover, Austria-Hungary's army had been defeated in Italy and the Balkans and effectively collapsed, and Bulgaria and the Ottomans had for all intents and purposes withdrawn from the war. All peace offers sent, however, were rejected. Further battles like Champagne and Cambrai pierced the Hindenburg Line. Bulgaria left the Central Powers and now the list of Germany's allies had basically shortened to Austria-Hungary. The German Navy mutinied when it caught wind of an offensive being ordered that would almost certainly end in disaster. With the collapse of the Balkan front, Germany's last supplies of food and oil dried up. The war came to an end and a revolution ousted the Kaiser and replaced him with a new government: the Weimar Republic. And at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in 1918, a ceasefire was called and the war was over. Four long, brutal, bloody years of a worldwide struggle came to an end, and the greatest war man had seen by that point was finally over.
Pushing 1918 into the winner's circle for the title of Worst Year Ever 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. 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 oldnote . . 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!). With the downfall of these governments, the whole landmass of Central and Eastern Europe needed to be redrawn on the map. Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points encouraged national self-determination and nationality based on ethnicity. This in fact just stored up more problems for the future (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Danzig, to name the biggest) since it created ethno-nationalist states in regions which had German populations or which had historically been contested territory. The newly formed state of Poland disputed some of its territory going to Czechoslovakia since there was a strong Polish minority in that region, while Pre-War Poland also included areas (especially to the East) where Poles were minorities among Ukrainians. The Italians were unhappy that despite fighting on the side of the Allies they didn't get the parts of Austria-Hungary they wanted.
In the case of Germany, the big dispute and point of contention, then and likely forever, is the issue of reparations and the clause of "war guilt". This is known as Article 231 that was authored by British and American diplomats, Norman Davis and John Foster Dulles respectively. The French were quite insistent, citing the disproportionate devastation of France and Belgium occupied by German forces (where their industries, mines and other resources were destroyed) that Germany should pay for the damages they caused. The French cited the reparations inflicted after the Franco-Prussian War, and compared to the Brest-Litovsk treaty which Germany had inflicted on Russia (in which Germany chopped off half of the western Russian Empire) it was not as harsh a settlement. The "war guilt" clause would later become one of the most controversial aspects of the treaty. It outraged Germany, who considered it a national humiliation. This reaction surprised Allied diplomats, who merely considered it a legal prerequisite to extract reparations (it wouldn't make sense, legally, for Germany to pay reparations if they weren't guilty of causing the war). Treaties with identical wording were signed by Austria and Hungary, with only the names changed, and the clause never took on the oversized significance in those countries as it did in Germany.
Later observers qualify this assessment. Everyone agrees that the Treaty of Versailles is a political and diplomatic failure. It clearly did not articulate and build a lasting peace, and on that level it is an incontestable failure. The question is merely if it was a failure of kind or failure of degree. The middle view is that it was a Golden Mean Fallacy that stoked political resentment while leaving Germany in a position that was still able to act on it. Etienne Mantoux, the French economist and later historians argued that the Treaty was truly lenient on Germany and that by the mid-20s, the Weimar Republic was on the road to recovery. Furthermore the calls to demobilize and reduce the size of the German army, cut the defense budget and allowed for more investment in civilian sector. The true failure some argue is the inadequacy of the League of Nations and other organizations to truly sustain and hold Germany to task. Likewise, by the middle of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic's great statesman, Gustav Stresemann won a Nobel Peace Prize for rebuilding foreign alliances and making the terms imposed by the Treaty even more lenient than it was. The prominence of the treaty in German and international media was seen by later historians as a means of delegitimising the Weimar Republic itself, with claims that the new republican government by accepting such an unfair treaty allowed the brave spotless German Army to be "stabbed-in-the-back"note .
A larger point made today is the fact that 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. The fact that the British government promised Indian soldiers and leaders dominion status and greater representation in exchange for enlistment and then did not deliver on those promises played a major part in the Indian Independence Movement which really caught gear after the war. Furthermore, if one of the causes for the war was the secret alliances and treaties, then the Sykes-Picot treaty, a secret agreement between the French and the English to carve out the Ottoman Empire among themselves while ignoring the pleas of their Arab allies, is considerably more damning in highlighting the general hypocrisy of the Entente. The Sykes-Picot agreement incidentally was discovered by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Imperial archives after their seizure of government, and they saw fit to leak it for the whole world to see.
During the war, the Young Turk government organised a series of deportations and massacres against Anatolian Armenians, Pontic Greeks and Assyrians, killing at least a million people. The logic behind this was that Serbia, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Greece had greatly improved their own claims to certain territories and removed many potential spies by executing pogroms against their Muslim populations (of up to 10% of the total) and driving them into Austro-Hungarian Bosnia, Italian Albania, and the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly this genocide was extremely 'hands-off', with the Ottoman government maintaining a high degree of Plausible Deniability through careful control of the paper trail and employing mercenaries and militias to take away the food and valuables of the deported people at the arrival points (to ensure that they would die of starvation and exposure in the Syrian desert). To this very day the Turkish government can rightfully claim that official government documentation of the time portrays a programme of civilised and genteel deportation. This evidence is at the heart of their claim that the Armenian Genocide didn't happen. Interestingly or disturbingly enough, the very best evidence which proves that the Armenian Genocide did happen (including the only photographs) actually comes from the German advisors to the Ottoman government and military... who were, to a man, utterly horrified and disgusted by it. German perception of the Armenian Genocide and the much smaller 1907 German colonial genocide against the Namaqua and Herero people in German South-West Africa (which killed less than 100,000) changed during the 1920s and '30s. While 'leftists' remained disgusted with them, 'rightists' came to appreciate the logic of 'preventative security' behind eliminating troublesome demographics even if they didn't necessarily approve of the 'uncivilised' and 'barbaric' nature of the elimination itself. The success of these genocides in addressing national security issues was later cited (to good effect) in various discussions about doing likewise immediately before and during World War II although the consensus of a direct link between the two genocides remains elusive. As it happens, one of the plotters behind the genocide, Talaat Pasha, was assassinated in Berlin in 1921 by Armenian rebel and agent Soghomon Tehlirian. Tehlririan turned himself in, and submitted to trial in German courts, and admitted his crime to better publicize the crimes against his people and to attain martyrdom. Instead the German courts released him and found him innocent on grounds of temporary insanitynote .
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). The most famous spy was of course the Dutch courtesan known as Mata Hari who was arguably the most famous spy (real and fictional) until the Cold War era and the advent of James Bond. Modern history confirms alas, that she was most definitely guilty.
There were many future writers in the trenches: notably, J. R. R. Tolkien and A. A. Milne served in the British infantry, while Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney volunteered to serve as Red Cross ambulance drivers; on the other side, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein served in the Austrian artillery. One who did not survive his service was William Hope Hodgson, author of The Night Land, who was killed by a shell in 1918; the accomplished Black Comedy writer Saki was also killed, shot by a German sniper after yelling at another soldier to put out his cigarette (he was discovered because of his yell). The famous German painter and founding member of "The Blue Rider", Franz Marc, was killed by a grenade at Verdun. And sadly, there was at least one young, promising scientist in the trenches: the physicist Henry Moseley, who discovered the principle underlying atomic number, establishing the periodic law, was killed at Gallipoli, just as his career was getting off the ground. The French lost André Durkheim, a promising young linguist and the son and protégé of the notable sociologist Emile Durkheim. Sent to the Belgian front in late 1915, André Durkheim was declared missing in January, and declared dead in April of 1916. The elder Durkheim never quite recovered from the loss of his son, dying himself in 1917. The loss of many of his other protégés and friends in the trenches didn't exactly help. Future film-makers F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang also fought in the trenches, as did Jean Renoir (who later made what many considered the definitive film about the war with The Grand Illusion), while William A. Wellman volunteered before America's entry into the war as a pilot for the Lafayette Escadrille. The French poets Charles Peguy died in 1914 in the Battle of the Marne, Guillaume Apollinaire, forerunner of surrealism survived the war only to die in the Spanish Flu epidemic. Among the English, the story of Wilfred Owen, among the most famous of war poets, was rather heartbreaking. He died in battle one week before the signing of the armistice. His compatriot and friend, Robert Graves, future author of Historical Fiction and translator of Latin prose, wrote a memoir titled Goodbye to All That. 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.
Other highlights include:
- 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.
- Gallipoli had brought about Aussies with Artillery.
- Brits with Battleships
- Canucks with Chinooks
- Gauls With Grenades
- Katanas of the Rising Sun: Imperial Japan sent warships to support the Entente forces in the Mediterranean as an ally of Great Britain, while seizing German colonies in the Pacific which became its bases for World War 2.
- Kipling's Finest
- League of Nations: Was created at the end of the war as a global body meant to prevent the bloodshed from happening again. The United States (with President Wilson as one of the backers of the LoN) refused to join. note
- New Roman Legions
- 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".
- Russians with Rifles: As the largest force in the war, and the one with the most and best artillery in 1914 (though this came to nothing because of just how awful their infantry-artillery coordination was). But in 1915, during the height of the Central Powers' campaign to defeat Russia, many of the replacement-troops pressed into service (given the million captured or dead Russian troops) lacked heavy weapons and in some instance even rifles (though this was chiefly among the supply-troops and Opolchenie/militia who were unexpectedly pressed into action due to the encirclements). This was fixed by 1917... whereupon a lack of food became evident (as a direct consequence of fixing the material/weaponry shortage, no less!)
- Turks with Troops
- Some historians credit the Seven Years' War from 1756 to 1763 as the real first World War, because of its global nature. World War I may then just be the Trope Codifier.
- Yanks with Tanks
A thing about the representation of WWI is that it's not as common as World War II. The most commercially successful films about the war is the The Big Parade (King Vidor's silent Epic Movie), followed by Lewis Milestone's adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, Renoir's Grand Illusion, while in the fifties, there was Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory with its iconic tracking shots following soldiers around the trenches, which defined most people's image of the war. Since Lawrence of Arabia (1962), there hasn't been a film on the war as successful critically and commercially and even in these cases, the focus is solely on the Western Front rather than other parts of the war. In games there aren't many WWI titles in general and as 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 and the greater remoteness of the politics, societies and values, and the ignorance of developers and most gamers, who often assume that "WWI = muddy and "unmoving" western front". This situation is changing recently, with a whole slew of strategy games being released on the centennial anniversary of the war's outbreak in 2014 and the extraordinarily unforgiving (in the ARMA-mold) online multiplayer shooter game Verdun having been released in April 2015. The Battlefield franchise also entered this era with the October 2016 release of Battlefield 1. WWI also sees some renewed interest in mainstream Hollywood, with 2017's Wonder Woman (2017) being probably one of the more prominent examples.
It's not easy to pinpoint the exact reason why people are focusing on this particular conflict all of a sudden aside from the 2014-2018 period marking its 100th anniversary. Among historians, the reason cited is the availability of archives in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, which allows them to access and study archives of the war not available earlier. Since East Germany was largely comprised of Prussia who were the region in charge of the war, historians are only now getting a bigger clarity of the other side. Other commentators, such as Christopher Clark, likewise cite the emergence of the multi-polar world and globalization, as analogous to the period of 1870-1914 (called "the first globalization" by some commentators), while some suggest ongoing problems in the Middle East and the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War, which has brought further attention to the Sykes-Picot treaty in international-relations, highlighting the continuing impact of the war well into the 21st Century. Another issue that may have renewed interest in World War I is that the morally more gray sides (sympathetic Nazis are usually an Audience-Alienating Premise, sympathetic German imperials much less so) without "easy answers" as well as the overall pessimistic outlook the war produced (compare to Armistice day as the day people were happy the war was over, much less who "won") fitting with a style popular with shows like Game of Thrones or The Wire that were influential during the time interest in WWI re-emerged.