*** war and social upheaval: World War I

War and Social Upheaval: World War I (1914-18)

Figure 1.--This drawing by French illustrator Francisque Poulbot shows the depth of feeling that developed among the World War I combatants. The boy is writing "Mort aux boches" (Death to the Germans) on the wall. "Le bosch" is of course the derogatoy term the French used or the Germans. The caption reads, "Celui qui effacera ça, il n'est pas encore né!" ("He who will erase this ('Death to the Germans') hasn't been born yet!") Click on the image for more detail.

"The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time."

-- British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, August 3, 1914

World War I was one of the most disastrous wars of all time. The irony is that it was a war that never had to be fought. World War II had to be fought. World War did not. There were no deep-seated ideological issues. The countries involved were diverse, but there was a largely accepted code of values and culture throughout Europe. It was, however, a war of such magnitude that it shattered the European system that has only with the end of the Cold War began to be put back together. The Great War altered the European landscape in all conceivable ways. World War I was actually a largely European war. What made the war so important were the huge casualties caused no only by the duration, but the introduction of deadly new weapons, including poison gas, machine guns, the air plane, tank, and submarine. This meant the rapid advances in the lethality of weapons. Commanders took longer to adapt tactics. A whole generation of European men was largely killed or crippled in the fighting. The consequences were enormous. Empires and ruling families fell. Long held social systems collapsed. They were replaced by radical new ideologies and proponents unencumbered by the humanitarian ideals that had restrained European leaders for centuries. The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. New countries based on nationality were created in Eastern Europe out of the old empires. The War gave rise to totalitarianism (Communism and Fascism) with an explosion of ethnic hatred and violence. The German manifestation of Fascism proved especially horrific. The origins of the Middle East conflicts can also be found in aftermath of the War. The national hatreds that were spawned erupted in an even more destructive war 20 years later. Many see the inter-War period with some accuracy as simply a temporary truce following World War I. Total war became a grim reality that was carried to its ultimate extent in World War II.

Turn-of-the-Century Europe

Europe at the turn-of-the-20th century was prosperous and the center of the world intellectually and scientifically, challenged industrially only by the United States. Most Europeans thought that a general war was impossible. There was considerable reason to think that this was the case. The last major war, the Napoleonic War, ended in 1815. Beneath the shining surface and glittering culture were a range of problems, some more visible than others. There was a working class while increasingly prosperous, was dissatisfied with social conditions and turning to Marxist politicians that questioned capitalism. Most of Europe was governed by four great empires (Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Ottomans, and Russia) which to varying degrees suppressed the different ethnic groups which they governed, but were increasingly unable to control the growing nationalist sentiments of these groups. Many assessments put Serbia and the Balkans at the center of European instability. There were certainly problems in the Balkans, but Europe itself was not the center of world stability often depicted. Rather it was a vast multi polar, fractured, multicultural world being contorted by cultural change resulting from industrialization and swept with clashing ideologies, terrorism, militancy, and instability. And there were trends which made war seem more than a remote possibility. Many of the wars had been fought in Germany or by Germany. German unification had been decided by war and Germany unified around the Prussian monarchy heavily influenced by the junker class. This gave the German military tremendous prestige as well as made the use of force acceptable to many Germans. On the other hand, Germany had the largest Socialist movement in Europe with a strong Marxist belief that that war the product of capitalism and imperialism. France was humiliated in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and saw no way of retrieving the lost provinces of Alsace-Loraine except through war. Turn of the century Europe was inter-connected to an incredible degree. (Not unlike our modern world before the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.) Railroads had made possible economic interactions possible to a greater extent than ever before. The economic interconnections and the costs of war were such that many felt that a major war would never occur. Even the royal families of Europe, in part thanks to Queen Victoria, were connected, making war even more unlikely. Ultimately these interconnections failed because of the forces sweeping Europe. Historians differ as to just what ultimately brought on war. One author maintains that the very leaders whom prided themselves on modernity and rationalism acted like 'sleepwalkers' who cobbled together patchwork settlements to crisis after crisis without resolving the fundamental problems until finally deciding on war. [Clark] Another author is even more accusatory. He believes that war could have been averted had not a small group of statesmen turned Archduke Ferdinand's assassination into the long-awaited showdown between two armed camps. Traditionally the accusatory finger has pointed at Austria and Germany with Austrian Foreign Minister Leopold von Berchtold and German Chancellor Berthmann Hollwegthe key actors. Other historians believe that France and Russia may have been even more culpable led by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Szonov and French President Raymond Poincaré. [McMeekin] The dominant view, however, is that Germany was primarily responsible, with Kaiser Wilhelm's blank check to Austria and the machinations of the German General Staff, key factors. However one view these developments, one can not get around the simple fact as Clemenceau pointed out, "Belgium did not invade Germany."


Economics inevitably plays an important role in wars, especially long wars and World War I proved to be much longer war than any of the belligerent nations anticipated. Europe in the early-20th century was prosperous, enjoying an expanding economy fed by the trade and commerce among the varying powers and free market capitalism. War seemed almost impossible because it would destroy that economic prosperity. Some analysts postulated that modern arms were so expensive that countries could not afford a long war. Economics do not seem to have been a major factor in causing the War, unlike World war II launched by countries intent on gaining territory and resources. Economics did affect German thinking. Many Germans did not believe that they had an empire appropriately reflecting the country's importance and thus rightful status. But this seems more of a nationalistic matter than an economic one. However it is classified, it did predispose the Germans to turn to military action. While economics was not a major factor in causing the war, it did affect the conduct and outcome of the War. The industrial power of each country was a factor in equipping and supporting the military. When the initial German offensive failed to defeat the Allies, the war became a matter of attrition and hear the Allies held the advantage. Not only did they have a larger population and economic base, but they had the navies that could blockade Germany while allowing them to import food and needed raw materials for the war effort. One development that surprised many was the ability of belligerents to sustain war despite the huge cost and the inevitable decline in living standards. Here the intensity of nationalist feelings helped sustain the effort. And capitalism proved highly adaptable. One of the unintended affects of the War was the expansion of governments in each of the principal belligerent countries to effectively harness society and importantly the economy for war. This included unprecedented control over the economy of each country. Military analysts often attribute the entry of the United States into the war as the reason for the Allied victory. Often this is attributed to manpower, the American infantry on the enters Front. This was Ludendorf's assessment. Actually, the American financial support for the Allies may have been even more important. After the War, the peace treaties imposed reparations on Germany and the other Central Powers. This is often cited as a factor in post-War Germany's turn to the NAZIs. The Versailles Treaty was widely hated in Germany, but the reparations did not have a major impact on the economy. Most of the payments were funds provided by American banks. And worth noting is the even more severe treaties or occupation regimes the German imposed on the countries that they defeated or occupied (Belgium, Russia, Romania, and Serbia).

Impossibility of War

Europeans in the early-20th century had convinced themselves that another major war had become impossible. There might be regional wars in backward areas like the Balkans or colonial wars, but a major European war was no longer possible. The major reason for that was the inter-dependency of European economies both for imports and exports. The thought was that Europeans simply could not afford to go to war with each other. There were several rations for this. First was the interdependence of European economies both for imports and exports. The major European powers depended on each other for both imports and exports. No country in Europe had autarkic economies. And the militarily most powerful country, Germany, was especially dependent on other countries for food and almost all raw materials. In time of war these supplies would be cut off. Second, the enormous cost of modern militaries and weapons were thought to be unsustainable. Third, at the turn of the 20th-century, the idea emerged that the the 20th century was a marvelous new era of progress. Science and industry was reshaping the world, personal welfare was improving, diseases were being mastered with new cures, and new technologies were the marvel of mankind (electricity, wireless communication, medicines, manned flight, unsinkable ships, automobiles, movies, public education, etc.). In this new era of progress, it was thought that war had become a relic of the past. The march of prioress was seen as replacing the march of armies. Fourth, most of Europe was ruled by monarchies. And these monarchies were interrelated with close personal contacts. Queen Victoria was, fir example, called the grandmother of Europe. Fifth, there were not yet ideological differences between the countries of Europe. There were differences, but the economic and civil systems throughout Europe were relatively similar.

Concept of War

Europe had experienced several wars since the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815). They were all quick short wars of mobility and movement. They had lasted only months, with the exception of the Crimean War (1854-56). Wars had been subsequently fought in Europe during the 19th century, but they had been brief engagements between individual countries or within Germany. No one least of all the generals thought that a war would be anything but the short, quick engagements that Europe had experienced in the 19th century. There was no appreciation for the impact of modern armaments on war. All of the major belligerent countries went to war with great enthusiasm, sending their youth off to the front with brass bands and flowers. It was not until 1916 with the Somme and Verdun that there was a general appreciation for just what modern war involved.


Europe in 1914 was divided into arm camps through a series of bilateral treaties. After the War, these treaties described as "entangling alliances" were seen to be a major cause of World War I. France as a result of German seizure of Alsace and Loraine in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) was Germany's mortal enemy, but without allies did not dare to challenge the Germans again. Germany and Austria-Hungary became known as the Central Powers. Germany's major ally was Austria in part because they were both German speaking nations. Austria and Germany formed the Triple Alliance (1882). Bismarck also managed to maintain close relations with the Russians, but with increasing difficulty because of the conflict between Austria and Russia over the Balkans. After firing Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II foolishly allowed the reinsurance treaty with Russia to lapse. The French seized on the opportunity to negotiate an alliance with the Russians, establishing a more equal European power balance. Britain and France had been at each other's throats for centuries. Even at the turn of the 20th century, their were major imperial tic issues. Fear of Germany, however, drove the two together. The two formed the Entente Cordiale (1904). Kaiser Wilhelm II's bombastic behavior and decision to build a major high seas fleet were major factors in pushing Britain and France together. Russia formed an Entente of its own (1907). These two armed camps engaged in a major arm's race. Largely because of Kaiser Wilhelm's incompetence, France was no longer isolated and still intent on recovering Alsace Loraine. It was widely thought after World War I that the alliance system had caused or at least played a major role in the outbreak of the War. The alliances are no seen as less important than the underlying causes, especially xenophobic nationalism.


The Allies in the Versailles Treaty following the War forced Germany to accept responsibility for the War. Germany did play an important, if not central role, in the outbreak of the War. Unlike World War I, however, the Germans were not solely responsible for the outbreak of World War II. The causes of World War I have been the subject of great historical debate. At the time many people in Europe had convinced themselves that Europe had progressed to the point that war was no longer possible. The European economy was so intertwined that it did not seem possible that major European countries could go to war. It was increasingly seen as an uncivilized vestige of the past. After the War the system of "entangling" alliances was seen as the major cause. Left wing analysts tended to see the war as a result of capitalism and imperialism. A recurrent them was that arms manufacturers , referred to as the "merchants of death" helped bring the war about and profited from it. There were widely publicized Congressional investigations in America. Surely the European alliance system played a role in the conflict, but the Marxist explanation lack any real insight into the conflict. The War can best be understood in the sense that that the number of countries and national groups that felt aggrieved reached a critical mass. In this regard only Britain in the final analysts had no real basic interests involved--until German armies crossed the Belgian frontier. The groups most aggrieved were the nationalities governed by the empires that controlled much of Europe (Austrian, German, Ottoman, and Russian Empires). And it was here that the spark that set off the War came. Serbs were aggrieved by the Austrian annexation of Bosnia. Austrians were aggrieved by Serb support for terrorism and Russian backing of the Serbs. And the Slavs were just one of many nationalities within the Empire. The Russians felt aggrieved by Austrian efforts to suppress the Serbs (fellow Slavs). The Germans decided ton support the Austrians. This has been blamed on the alliance with Austria. In fact, Germany's catastrophic decision to go to war reflected the German widespread German belief that their country should play a leading role in Europe and was not being given due deference by other countries. The French since the Franco-Prussian War desired to regain their lost provinces--Alsace-Lorraine. They were not, however, about to confront Germany on their own. This was why France's ability to negotiate an alliance with Russia was such a key step. Britain was more of a question. The Kaiser's bellicosity and decision to build a high seas fleet had changed British attitudes toward Germans. Even so, Britain had no desire to enter a European War. The Germans created the one cause for British participation--an attempt to dominate the Continent and especially the Lowlands. Given the enormity of the disaster that made up World War I, the grievances felt by the belligerent powers may seem small even trivial. But few wars begin on the basis of rational thinking.

Military Forces

Europe at the eve of World War I was an armed camp. Akll the European powers except for Britain had conscriptions systems and large armies. Even small countries had substantial armies. Germany had the strongest and best organized army. It also had the most efficent reserve force and organization to rapidly mobilize reserve forces through an efficent railway system. Germany had the industrial power to equip its army, although its industial capacity was not as great as that of Britain and France combined. The German Army was committed to a war of movement and gaining early victories by concentrating forces at critical points. Germany was also building a navy to challenge the long dominant British Royal Navy. Russia had the largest army, but it was ponderous and tool time to mobilize. It lacked the industrial power to prperly equip its army. The French Army was also sizeable and firified with the man power of its colonies which contributed nearly 0.5 million men, narrowing the German manpower advantage. The British at the onset of the War had only a small, but highly professional army. The British Expiditionary Force (BEF) would play a key role in slowing the German offensive through Belgium. Eventually the British had to turn to conspription. The Royal Navy was Britain's principal force in beding and with the French Navy was able to effectively blockade the Central Powers. The British Empire forces (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa) were also important. The small Belgian Army was quickly mobilized and played an important role in slowing the German offensive in the first month of the War. The Austro-Hungarian Army was substantial, but proved much less effective than the German Army. They were unable to defeat the Serbs until refinforced by the Germabns and Bulgarians. The Serb Army managed to escape encirclement bnd was evacuated by Allied naval forces. The Ottoman Army was substantuial, but the country did not have the industrial capacity to build modern arms. The Germans supplied some modern equipment. The United States which would play a played a decisive role in the war, had a very small army which it did not begin to increase significantly until declaring war (April 1917).

European Pacifism

There were many historic example of pacifist thought, although rare in the full sweep of human history. Modern examples of pacifism appeared in European churches like the Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, and others. Thesegroups were important, especially the Quakers who did not separate themselves from the wider society like the Mennites. The Quakers were especially important in the anti-slavery movement. Their impact on war and militarism was, however limited. Potentially more important was the world Socialist movement that developed in Europe during the second half of the 19th century. Socialism developed as a strongly anti-militarist, anti-war movement. Socialists saw war and colonialism as natural outgrowth of capitalism that would be swept away in a new socialist future. War was another way in which captalist class divided and exploited the working class. The militarism of 19th century Europe was one of the driving forces of the emigrant outflow during the late 19th-century. Socialist leaders pointed out that most of the dieing and suffering was experienced by the workers who formed the bulk of the waring armies while capitaliss made great fortunes selling arms. The Socialist movement was still in its infancy when the Franco-Prussian War broke out (1870). The movement by the early 20th century had become an important political force throughout Europe, especially Western Europe. As military rvalries developed among the great powers, Socialist leaders were hopeful that worker solidarity could prevent a major war in Europe.

Eastern Europe

Americans generally focus on Western Europe. It was, however, in Eastern Europe that the WAr was to be generated and it was Eastern Europe that was most affected by the War. The map of Europe before World War I looked very different than Europe today. Much of Europe was part of three large empires (German, Russia, and Austro-Hungarian). This included the modern states of the Belarus, Bosnia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, and Ukraine. Several new mostly weak and unstable countries or dependencies (Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Serbia, and Romania) had been created from the earlier breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Most of these countries, including areas of the German Empire, were still largely agricultural, in some cases almost feudal. Large areas had still been vurtually untouched by the Industrial Revolution. The rural peasantry and relatively small urban working class was often very poor with families eckeing out a very meager existence. Urban workers in many cases lived in almost Dickesian squalor. Natioanlist sentiment was strictly suppressed in these empires. World War I which destroted all four of these great empires was to unleash long-supressed nationalist sentiment throughout Eastern Europe. Winston Churchill saw the destruction and the introduction of dangerous American principles in the Versailles Treaty such as national self determination as one of the causes of the rise of brutish Coomunis, Fascist, and NAZI totalitarianism after the War. Adding the volitile mix was the rise of Soviet Communism in Russia after the War and its appeal to many agricultural and industrial workers.

Belgian refugees
Figure 2.--The German assessment of the war was purely military. Thus the Sclieffen Plan of attacking France through neutral Belgium, avoiding the French border defenses, was adopted without any though of the impact on international opinion. This may not have made much of a difference as all of the major European powers were involved in the war. But it did make a difference in America. And the brutality of the German Army in Belgium and the suffering of the Belgian people would paint a dark image of the Germans in the american mind that would only grow as the war progressed. It would be a factor in eventually bringing America into the War leading to the German defeat. Illustrator: Theophile Alexandre Steinlen.

Conduct of the War (1914-18)

Terroism was at the heart of World War I in a chilling reminder to our modern age. War had been brewing in Europe for decades. It was a terrorist act that was the actual catalyst. Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (June, 28, 1914) assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. The Austrians were incorporating Bosnia into their Empire and had chosen the most sacred day in Serbian history, their defeat by the Ottoman Turks on the plains of Kosovo, for the Archduke's visit. The Austrians decided to punish the Serbs. The German Government (July 6) gave its support for Austro-Hungary's plan to punish the Serbs. Germany and Austria-Hungary became known as the Central Powers. When Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia and France began to mobilize its troops. As a result of Kaiser Wilhem's bumbling, France had succeeded in signing a mutual defense treaty. Germany felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize. Germany declaring war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3). The German Army entered neutral Belgium (August 4), in an effort to go around the strong French border defenses. Britain declared war on Germany over the violation of Belgian neutrality. Britain, France, and Russia became known as the Allied countries. The Germans were convinced they could take Paris before either th British or Russians could intervene. Miraculously the French Army managed to stop the Germans at the Marne and the Western Front became a brutal war of attrition. Italy had signed a treaty with Germany and Austria Hungary, decided not to honor it and later entered the War. Turkey had signed a defensive alliance with Germany in July 1914 and seeing an opportuity to make major gains against their historic enemy Russia joined the Central Powers. Making another effort to win the War, Germany in 1917 reimplemented unrestricted submarine warfare (March ?, 1917), bringing America into the War (April ?, 1917). Despite German victories on the Eastern Front agaist Russia, the added resources and manpower America provided enabled the Allies to break the Germans on the Western Front. The Kaiser was forced to abdicate and a new government had to seak an armistace (November 11, 1918).

The Issues

Territorial issues were important, but almost from the outset of the War, the major beligerants began to jusity the conflict in much larger terms. The Allies represented the War as one for big ideas. This went far beyond just reclaiming Alsace-Loraine. The Allies presented the War as one for Democracy (here the autocratic Russian Empire was an embrassment), the rights of small nations, freedom of the seas, and civilization itself. Here the German invasion of neutral Belgium, refering to treaties as a 'scrap of paper', introduction of poison gas, and violation of established naval warfare conventions all put Germany in the densive in the propganda war. We are less sure as to how the Germans justified the War. The Kaiser as well as many Germns did not think Germany was given proper respect in Europe. The feeling of being suuounded by the French-Russian alliance was a factor. As was their concerns about the East--especially the large non-German populations there. The German Government managed to convince the German socialists that it was a war of national self preservation. They presented themselves as a bukwark of European civilization from the the barbaric Slavs. [Strachan] The Russians for their part had a history of Pan-Slabism and serious issues with the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the future od the Balkans and it lasrgely Slavic population. Britain at theonset of the war was more concerned with balance pf power issues, like the German highseas fleet and control of the Low Countries. <


The major European powers during the late-19th and early-20th century engaged in a deadly arms race. Huge sums were appripriated for arms production and research on new weaponry. The greatest rivalry ws between Germant and France. Both had large, modern arms industries. The German arms indutry was karger because the country had larger industrial base. France had, howevr, an alliance with Russia. Tsrist Rusia was backward, but had the fastest growing industy in Europe. At the time of te War, howevr, it was not yet capable of adequately supplying the vast army it mobilized. Britain was also a major indistril power, but put much more emphasis on the Navy than Army. Austria-Hungary was a major 19th century power, but had not kept up with industry. Much of the Empire's heavy industry was located in the Czech lands. The major powers developed important arms industries. The sole exception was the United States which neither had a sizeable army or important arms industries. The United States had the largest industrial capacity in the War, but that indutry was not used for significant arms production. As a result, when America entered the War, the American Expeditionary Force would fight ith British and French arms. Improvements in weaponry that had been appearing throughout the 19th century came togrther to create a battlefield leathality of unprecedented proporions. And one that commanders had not yet adjusted tactics to accomodte. The result was battlefield losses of unprecedented proportions. The machine gun mowed down whole columns of advancing inantry. Artillery became even mote murderous. Both rapid fire and heavy types appeared. And the air plane played an important role for the first time. The Germans introduced gas warfare. One unexpected development was what was expected to be a war of movement bogged down into trench warfare on the Western Front. The soldiers had to go underground to survive. Another major innovation was motorized vehicles--especially the truck. This was the principal American industrial contribution to the War. American trucks arrived in Europe nearly 3 years before American soldiers. General Pershing had learned an important lesson in Mexico--the needed for interchangeable parts. As a result, the AEF brought with it 100,000 trucks--mostly the standard type V liberty truck. The AEF used a lot of Allied weaponty, especially French weapons, but their trucks were American. The trucks weren't practical in the mud at the front, but were widely used behind thge front lines. The British in the last year of the War introduced the tank which was a factor along with the American infabtry in breaking through the German Siegfried Line on the Western Front. At sea, the submarine, especially the German U-boat, unexpectedly became a major new vessel type.

Signals and Intelligence

Despite all the modern technical innovations, bttlefield command an control durin World War I was not greatly different than that of that of the 19th century and earlier periods. There were various methods used by commanders in rear areas to keep in contact with their various units. Runners and couriers were used with the motor cycle replacing the horse. Signal flags, mirrors, flashing lights, and other metods were used. Dogs were also used, but the tendency of front line units to adopt them as pets meant they often were not returned to headqurters. Telephone lines could be string to the trenches. The problem occurred when offensives were launched. Once an offensive was set in motion, the commanders in the rear in the chaos of battle essentially lost contact with their advancing forward elements. Innovations were attempted such as dropping messages by air, but this was not the same as two-way messaging. The telegraph and telephone had been invented (mid-19th century) and these these instruments were very effective in establishing contact between army commanders and unit commanders, but not front line units especially those on the move. Lines had to be strung. And radios were to heavy by advancing combat troops. While little progress was made in battle-field commsnd and control, the appearance of radio sets just befire the War did revolutionize military communications, both art sea and on land. The fact that signals naval and and army commanders were transmitted for the first time meant that interception was possible on a large scale for the first time. And the War began with huge failure of signals decipline on the Eastern Front. The Russian defeat at Tannenberg was in part because of commabders ignoring regulations and transmitting many messages describing troop movements and strategic/tactical measures plain text. The Germans had committed the bulk of their army to the Western offensive and as a result a much smaller force was available to oppose the Russian offensive in the East. But the Russians essentially told the Germans the details of their offensive in East Prussia where Germany bordered on Russia. The result was the hugec German victiory at Tannenberg. The Germans also learned a great deal about Russian secure communicationss. While it was the Germans who took advantage of the security lapses, at this early stage of the War, the Germans wwere also not careful about their transmissions. The Russians did obtain a major intelligence prize. The found a code book on the the German cruiser Magdeburg and turned it over to the British. This gave the British insights into German secure communications for most of the War. Naval intelligence during the War, however, was primarily assessing the direction and volume of transmissions. The Germans upgraded their code system just before launching their hoped for war-winning offensive (Spring 1918). Allied crypto analysts were, as aresult, in the dark as the front-line troops braced for the German offensive. The Allies had, however, other sources of information. Aerial reconisance provided information on rear area movement which detected buildups. Wireless traffic annalisis was also useful. The French thus concluded that the final German blow would come between Compiegne and Montdidier, tow towns about 50 miles north of Paris. The Kaiserschlacht came at that exact location (June 9, 1918). The British and French with newly deployed American infantry managed to stop the final German thrust.

Peace Feelers

American President Woodrow Wilson from he beginning of the war saw himself as the only potential mediator who could end the War. He was probably correct. Early on he attempted to get the Germans and the British to discuss peace terms. His approach was to settle the War on the basis of a status quo ante bellum and a post-war disarmament. On two occasions (early-1915 and again in early-1916), he dispatched his principal foreign policy advisor, Colonel Edward M. House (1858-1938) to Europe to meet face to face with British, German, and French leaders. His goal was to find an avenue for wider talks or some aceptance of the idea of an American demand that hostilities cease. Wilson then publicly supportd U.S. participation in a post-War international security organization. He thought this might interest the belligerents into welcoming or at leaat accepting U.S. mediation (May 1916). He then formally called for the belligerents to state their war objectives (December 1916). The Allies immediateky did so. They demanded the disolution of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and the return of Alsace-Loraine. This was a nonstarter with the Central Powers. Wilson then made an impassioned plea that the war end with a 'peace without victory' and the establishment of a 'League of Peace' (Janury 1917). [Kennedy, pp. 68f, 71-74, 86-89. 94-98.] After the War, Lord Grey, former Foreign Secretary who made the famous comment about the 'lights going out all over Europe' in his memoirs wrote that if Germany had accepted the idea of peace without vitory, that the allies would have had no choice, but to also agree. At this point Ludendorf settled the issue. He began pressing the Kaiser and Hindenburg with Russia tottering for an expanded U-boat campaign with unrestructed attacks on all ships, including neutral shipping, sailing toward Allied ports. After the horrifying fighting in the first year of the War, the combatant powers in 1916 began to think about a negotiated peace. The scale of the War and casualties were far beyond what anyone had anticipated. It had been so long since a major war had been fought and the new weapomry was of inprecedented letality. Germany had failed to achieve the quuck victory anticipated in the Schliffen Plan. German peace feelers went out soon after the failure to achieve victory in the West They focused on France and Russia. They contacted French disidents, but the offers were what one might expect from a victor. They contacted the Russians through Denmark and ex-premoer Counte Witte who they believed to be pro-German. The offers to Russia were more conciltory than to the French. As food and raw material shortages began affecting both morale and the war economy, the Germans becme more concilatory. The Kaiser incouraged Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg to put out feelers. Bethmann-Hollweg was a ypical non-entity with which the Kaiser peeffered to surrond himself. Bethmann-Hollweg dispatched a short note to the Allies offering to discuss terms in a neutral country (December 12, 1916). At the time he was still hopeful that American President Woodrow Wilson could mediate an end to the War. Field Marshall Hindenberg, Chief of the General Staff, who was informed of the exercise, understanding the military situation, did not object to the exerccise. Gen. Ludendorff, his close and influntial associate did. Buoyed by success in oil-rich Romania, Ludendorff issued a public order to the Army, "Soldiers, in the conciousness of victory which you have won, the rulers of the Allied states have made an offer of peace." Newly appointed British Foreign Minister, LLoyd George, may have spurned the German peace feeler anyway, but upon learning of the Lundorff order remarked, "To enter into a conferenceon the invitation of Germanyproclaining herself victorious, without any knowledge of the proposals she has to make, is to put our heas in a noose." The Allies proceeded to reject the German iniative. Austria-Hungary suffering severe food shortages a terrible losses to the Russians became intent on exiting the war by the time America was preparing to enter the War. Emperpr Franz Josef died (Novermber 1916). The new empero, Karl I saw clearly that the Empire was disolving before is eyes. Thus the Austrians began sending out peace feelers. Karl had oppsed the War from the beginning. He wrote to the Kaiser in 1917, "We are fighting against an enemy which is more dangerous than the Entente [Allies] --against international revolution which finds its strongest ally in general starvation." The Kaiser and Hindenberg had already set the revolution in motion by dispatching Bolshevik revolutionary to Russia with auitcase full of funds. The Germans upon learming of the austrian peace feelers put them to a quick stop, essentially seizing control of the Austro-Hungarian Government.


Several countries remained neutral. America maintained its neutrality for much of the War until the Germans in 1917 declared unrestricted submarine warfare. An important neutral country was the Netherlands. A significant portion of the population was pro-German as a result of British brutality in the Boer War (1899-1902). The Dutch strongly sympathized with the Afrikaners. There still was a strong anti-British feeling in the country. The Dutch opened its doors for Belgian refugees when the Germans occupied the country in 1914. The Dutch also sent food and clothes to the remaining Belgians as far as the Germans allowed it. Immediately after the war Holland took in hundreds of starving Austrian children. Some of them stayed in the country and later married Dutch citizens. Also the German Kaiser was granted asylum in 1918 and was offered to live in a castle at Doorn while his compatriots had to endure extremely hard times after Germany had lost the war. Kaiser Wilhelm II died in 1941, ignored by the NAZI authorities. The Dutch during the World War II German occupation could not help but reflect that their compassion with the Austrians and Germans was repaid by a brutal occupation administer by Arthur Seyss-Inquart, an Austrian. The Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norways and Sweden) all remained neureal during the War. Switzeland was another important neutral country.


Religion is often neglected in World War I histories. Religion has played a major role in European wars, but by the 20th centyry is was no longer a major factor. And while it did not play a major role in the War, there were a range of relgious matters that arose which need to be noted, and especially the consequences of the war impacting the major religions. The War was fought primarily by Christian nations with both Protestant and Catholic populations as well as Orthodox Russia. These countries were largely secular states, but relgious groups had varying influences. A major religious factor was with nursing. Eeligious orfers played a major role in nursing, esoecually in Europe. Only the Roman Catholic Church was an international church vebntered in the Vatican in the heart of Rome. Pope Beneduct XV (1914-22) was elevated to the papacy took a neutral poition and worked hard to bring about a negiotiated peace, to no avail. The Church's himamitarian efforts were notable. His most notable effort was the Papal Peace Note (August 1917). It failed because both sides believed that victory was within their grasp. There were no other truly international churches. And in each beligerant country, the multiple churches for the most part supported their country's war effort invoking God to assist in victory. There were some pacifist groups like the Quakers and Seven-Day Advenbtiusts, but they were a small part of the population. The major unfathomable were the largely Lutheran German-Americans. German-Americans were the largest American ethnic community and while not stringly pro-German, they were against Amnerican entry into the War. They were a powerful political force, especially in the Midwest. A smaller, but not unimortant group were the advoacts of Muscular Christianity exeplified bu still very popular, former-president Theodore Roosevelt. An anonmally was the Tsar Nicholas II was head of the Russian Orthodox Church. (King George V was also the titular head of the nglican church, but it was not as imprtant in more secular Britain with many distenting sects and a nore secular society.) The Tsar was not the only deeply religious war-time figure . The other Was American President Woodrow Wilson. Keeping American out of the War was at first in part a relgious matter, but as the ar progressed his attituse shited to pomoting a negotiated peace to making the world safe for democracy. His policies at each stage were stribgly ibfluence by his religious faith. . Caught between the waring Christian parties were the Jews, especially the Jews of Eastern Europe. Tsarist repression, especially deportations, turned much of Jewish population toward the Central Powers. As a result of pre-War Tsarist repression, Jews were no longer a European population, but were becoming an imprtant part of American society. The third Abrhamic religion was also involved--Islam. The titulr head of Islam wa the Caliphic of the Ottomn Empire. When the Ottoman Empire joned the Central Powrs, he declared a jihad (holy war). Few Mislims tooks this seriously, in lrge measure because most Arabs viewed the Ottomans as an occuoying colonial power which the British woukd exploit with the arab Revolt. Pehpd greater than the religious impct on the war is the War's impct on relgion, especially Christianity.

World War I German family
Figure 3.--The most tragic aspect of war is the people caught up in war. Photographic images of the everyday people caught up in the War are especially poignent. Unfortunately we often do not know who they were and what happened to them. The two German boys here much be brothers. The women are presumably mother and grandmother. We believe that the older boy is a Cadet training to be an officer, but we are unure. The photograph is undated, but would have been taken either just before the War or in an early phkase of the War. Note that the younger brother is wearing his sailor cap (with a short word on the cap tally), probably because his older brother is wearing his helmet.

The People

The most tragic aspect of war is the people caught up in war. The most obvious individuals are the graet war leaders, civilian and domestic. Some emerge as statesmen, usally those on the victorious side. Others emerge as villans or at least weak leaders, usually those on the losing side. HBC has developed a number of biographies of some of the important people involved in World War I. Our focus is of course their childhood and clothing, but we also provide some basic information on their adult lives. In many cases, their childhood played an important role in the War. Many others were caught up in the War. Millions were in fact killed, both soldiers and civilians. Many more had the course of their lives irevocably altered by the War. We want to have a look at some of the ordinary families in the different cobatant countries.


Animals played an important role in World War I. The most important was the horse. World war I was the first important European War since ancient times in which the calvalry did not play an important role. All the major combatant countries began the War with important calvalry forces, but found that changes in weaponry and aerial recoisance had rendered horse calvalry obsolete. Even so, the horse was still important as a draft animal. ccount the most important use of animals during the War. All of the combatant forces used draft animals to transport supplies and equipment as well as to move artillery. Gradually trucks were introduced. The American Expeditionary Force brought a huge number of trucks with it. And the War would prove to be a dividing line between horse-draw carts and waggons and trucks. After the War, improved trucks rapidly replaced horses in America. The process was slower in Europe. Trucks were particularly useful behind the lines, but often could not negotiate the muddy and torn up terraine at the front. Dogs were also important in the War. The French and German armies in particular used dogs, mostly as sentries, scouts, anunition and equipment carries as well as to send messages. They also proved useful in killing rats in the trenches. The French and Germans trained about 50,000 dogs. When the Americans arrived in France, they did not have trained dogs. The British and Belgians loaned trained dogs to the Americans. Carrier pigeons were also important in carrying messages.


There is a huge body of literature on World War II occupation regimes and policies. The goal of seizing territotory and exploiting occupied territiry to support the war effort was a major cause of the War. It also resilted in unbelievable attrocities. Countries were also occupied in World War I, but it was not a major cause of the War and not a major factor in the war effort. There were also attrocities and abuses, but not on the scale of the Axis powers during World War I. As Germany launched the War by invding Belgium and achieved early successes, the primary occupyong power was Germany. Germany in the West occupied most of Belgium, northern France, and Luxembourg. The most controversial occupation regime was the Gemn occupation of Belgium. In the South Germany and Austro-Hungary occupied Serbia, Romania, areas of northern Italy. In the East, the sitiation was different. There were no national states as in the West, but, the huge Tsarist Empire. The Germans occupied most of the Baltics, Poland, and areas of the Ukraine. They did not penetrate into the Russian Heartland. One of the terms of the Armitice ws hat Germany withdraw from occupied areas, meaning primarily a huge swath of Eastern Rurope formerly part of the Tsarist Empire. Outside of Europe, the Allies seized German and Ottoman colonies, modt notably Palestine, the Levabt, and Mesopotamia. After the War, the quwestion of occupying Germany arose. The Allies did not do so, although an Allied Control Cimmissuin attempted to ebforce compliance with the Versailles Treaty. After the War, the French to enforce Germn compliance with the Versailles Treaty, occupied the Rhineland.


The casulaties in World War I were horendous. Neither these soldiers who enthuistically marched off to war in August 1914 expected the level of casulaties experienced or the duration of the War. This was in part because of the development of such lethal weapons, including machine guns, improved artillery, airplanes, poison gas, tanks, and other refinements. Europe had not fought a war since the Franco Prussian War (1870-71) and thus tactics taking these improvements in weaponery had not yet been developed. The reslt was killing and maiming on n inustrial scale. The professional armies that began the War was desimated. Each commatant county was forced to draft huge conscript armies. Virtually every family had loved ones at the front.

Prisoners of War (POWs)

World War I histories tend to give less attention to Prisoners of War than is the case of World War II. This is in part because the major beligereant countrirs generally treated POWs correctly following the Geneva Convention to the extent possible given war time conditions. Here the major exception was the Ottoman Turks. The Austrians and Germans also tended to treat the Serbs harshly. There was, however, nothing of the barbarity exhibted by the Germans and Russians during Wotld War II. Quite large numbers were involved. Offical statistics tend to combine POWs and missing in action. The two countries with the largest numbers of POWs were the Russians with 2.5 million (mostly taken by the Germans) and thecAustro-Hungarians with 2.2 million (mostly taken by the Russians. There were also 1.2 million Germans (mostly taken by the Western Allies). Other countries with relatively large numbers were: Italy (0.6 million), France (0.5 million), Ottoman Empire (0.3 million), Britain (0.2 million), and Sebia (0.2 million). Only 4,000 Americans were POWs or missing. Given the recruitment policies of the beligerant nations, there were many children and teenagers among the POWs. The Red Cross played a major role with POWs during World War I. This was a category of war victims that had not previously been protected by the Geneva Conventions. The International Prisoner of War Agency in Geneva compiled a an index of seven million file cards. They documented 2 million prisoners held in the POW camps of the 38 belligerents nations.

Wilson's 14 Points

American President Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 on a campaign "He kept us out of war." The President became increasingly uneasy about a possible German victory. Efforts by Wilson to negotiate an end to the War were dimissed by the Kaiser as naive. Many Americans favored the Allles at the onset of war and German offers of the southwest to Mexico (Zimmerman Telegram) and British war popaganda gradually moved most Americans increasingkly to the Allied side. When the Kaiser ordered the resumtion of unrestricted sunmarine warfare, Wilson asked the Congress to declare war. (April 1917) President Woodrow Wilson unveiled a new Peace Program to Congress (January 1918). The program had been prepared by a group of U.S. foreign policy experts and consisted of 14 major princiles. The first five points dealt with major principles. Point 1 renounced secret treaties which many had come to see as a cause of the War. Point 2 dealt with freedom of the seas, the issue that brought America into the War. Point 3 called for the removal of worldwide trade barriers. This was a major issue both in American domestic politics as well as international diplomact. Point 4 advocated arms reductions. Point 5 suggested the international arbitration of all colonial disputes. Points 6 to 13 were concerned with specific territorial problems, including claims made by Russia, France and Italy--some of the major Allied beligerants. Here Wilson addressed difficult issues such as the control of the Dardanelles and the claims for independence by the people living in areas controlled by the Central Powers. The principle to be followed was to be national self-determination. This is such an accepted princile today that it is difficult to understand the emense impact and reperscussions on a Europe that had been dominated by four huge empires (Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian). This was of interest to many ethnic Americansm especially Polish Americans. These ethnic groups were not coincidentlly important sources of strength for Wilson's Democratic Party. Many of these issues were highly controversial. All the beligerant countries objected to some aspects of Wilson's Peace Program. They proved, however, very popular among the Allied public. Wilson himself both because of the American intervention in the War and his Peace Program was lionized, much more so than in America. British and French officials were much less enthusiastic. French Premier Clemanceau mocked, "Moses was satisfied with 10 commandments but, Wilson requires 14." When peace negotiations actually began in October, 1918, Wilson was adamanent that his 14 Points should serve as a basis for the signing of the Armistice. The 14 Points did not include any mention of reparations and on this issue the British and French would not compromise.

Clothing Impacts

World War represents a great divide between 19th and 20th Century boys'clothes. The War was arguably the single most important event in the development of modern fashionms. Before the War boys still wore dresses and kilts with ringlet curls for little boys. Older boys wore formal clothes like Little Lord Fauntleroy suits worn with keepants. After the war boys wore shortpants and knickers with modern looking suits. Clothes became increasingly casual. I am not sure why such a profound change in fashion took place. Certainly the War was devestating. An entire generation of French, British, and Germans were lost. But just why the change in boys' fashions occured I am not sure. HBC can only offer a therory at this time. Women were mobilized for the work force. Many women who had never left the home before, entered the work force. They simply did not have time to launder and care for the fancy clothes of the Victorian and Edwardian era. But time was not the only factor. As a result of the War, the frivolity of formal fashion seemed much less important than before the War. Men returing from the Western front, experienced a profound change in values. The restructuring of the world economy after World War I needs to be considered.

Sailor Suits

It is a little known fact that the boys' sailor suit had a role in preparing the ground work for the calamity of World War I. Fashion is generally viewed by HBC as a reflection of larger historical an societal trends. We remained convinced that this is essentially the case. It is interestng however, to reflect on the impact of the boys' sailor suit in the years leading up to World War I. It certainly reflected the temper of the times, but there is reason to believe that the sailor suit was a factor, of course among many others, in leading the great European powers to war.

Home Front

The home fronts proved crucial in World War I. British Foreign Secretarry Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933) who worked tirelessly to preserve the peace when it became clear that Europe was spiraling toward war remarked, "The lights are going out all over Europe and they will not be lit again in our generation." He was essentially correct, but this was not how most saw it. Military commanders thought it would be a short swift conlict of rapid movement. It almost was, but when the French stopped the Germans on the Marne (September 1914), the war bogged down into a long grueling war of attrition. The well-prepared Germans with the strongest army in Europe head the advantage in a short war. The Allies with greater resources and the Royal Navy capable of blockading German held the advantage in a war attrition. This long drawn out war also made the home front critical. It would be the countries with the greatest resources and the which used those resources most efficiently that would prevail. While the Allies had the greater resources and with the Royal Navy the ability to import what they lacked. Even so the two-sides were relatively evenly matched. Rational calculations dictated that Germany do every thing possible to keep America out of the War. German policy, however, persued policies that eventually brought America and its huge resources into the War. Countries varied as to how efficently countries used their resources. Russia was the most defficent country in utilizing its resources which led to the Russian Revolution (October 1917) and Russia's withdrawl from the War. Surprisingly the Germans while mobilizing its industrial strength efficently, failed to do the same with its agriculture. Partly as a result, it was the German home front which eventually cracked.


Here we will collect overviews of the experiences of individual countries in World War I. The central conlict was the tension between Germany and France. This time French diplomats were careful not to face Germany alone. In the end, Germany defeated Russia and destroyed the offensiveccapability of the French Army, but was defeated by the British and American Armies. The war in many ways was the central event of the 20th century and the consequences of the War affected much of the 20th century and have not yet fully played out. We do not yet have many extensive country entries here, but have begun to collect information. Here we have included notonly the belligerent countries, but also colonies and areas that were to emerge as independent countries after the War.

Displaced Children

World War I caused mass slaughter on a basis never before exoerienced in Europe. The number of father killed in every country is difficult to fathom. The loss of life in all the major combatent countries was astromical, although smaller in America which entered the War in 1917 and did not commit troops in large numbers until 1918. The number of orphans was extremely high in Belgium and other areas where fighging took palace. ted. A friend tells me that early Life Magazine articles had some images of European children showing period clothes. I think in 1917-18 they ran a series of articles on French children who had lost their fathers in the War. The magazine I think was asking for donations to help these families. The series contained lots of pictures of these, sadly mostly young, fatherless children. If anyone has access to a good University library, these Life Magazine images should be available. There apparently was a variety of boys clothes pictured. Another problem was that while many children were not orphaned, rhere were millions without fathers. As the father in the 1910s was the principal, if not thde only, income earner, this maent that millions of children were reduced to poverty or very close to it.


Food is a major issue in war. Food has to be stockpiled and transported to feed armies or the armies have to live off the land which can have a devestating impact on civilian populations. After the Napoleonic Wars, the wars in Europe were short lived, maning that food did not become a major issue. World War I lasted 4 years and had a devestating impact on the economies of beligerant and occupied countries. The food situation was especoially disruppted. The fighting disrupted agriculture, affecting the availability of draft animals as well as important inputs such as fertilizer. It also affected the availability of of agricultural labor. Food emerged as a problem almost from the outset of the war. The German Army hich lunched the war by invading neutral Belgium also created a humanitarian crisis by seizing the country's food supply. Industrial countries that had to import food were the most in jeporady. This included Britain and Germany. The British Royal Navy ensured, on the other habd, that food could be obtained in Canada and America. It also instituted a naval embargo which cut the Germans off from needed food imports. The German U-boats seeking to blockade Britin only suceedin bringing America into the war. This would take time to have an impact, but the French Miralcle on the Marne, meant tjhat there would be no quick Germsn victory. And Germany need for imports of both food and raw matetials would gradually impair the German war effort. Therewas only one major naval battle during the War, but the Royal Navy would play a major role on the outcome of the War. A new German word appeared in the English language--Ersatz. Beligerant countries instituted food rationing systems, but the systems varied widely from country tp country as did steps to ensure that conscription programs did not severly reduce the rural agricultural work force. Food shortages were largely responsible for the Russian Revolution. Russia before the War had been one of the world's most important exporters of grain. Food shortages also undermined civilian morale in Germany and Austria-Hungary. As a result of the war, there would have been a massive famine as agricultural production had sunstantially declines. Only American food relieft prevented what could have been the greatest humanitarian crisis since the 13th century Plague. America beginning with Belgium saved millions of lives in both Allied countries, the Central Powers, and the new Soviet Union with food relief efforts.

World War I Research Resources

The World War I site "Trenches on the Web" is a wonderful resource for readers who would like to persue the War in more detail.


Economics can play an important role in wars, especially long wars and World War I proved to be much longer than the beligerant nations anticipated. Eurooe in the early 20th century was prosperous, enjoying an expabnding econmy fed by the trade and commerce among the varying powers. Wr seemed lmost impossible because it would destroy that economic prosperity. Economics do not seem to have been a major factor in casing the War, unlike World War II launched by countries intent on gaining territory and resources. Economics did affect German thinking. Many Germans did not believe that they had an empire appropriately reflecting the country's importance abd thus rightful status. But this seems more of a nationalistic matter than an economic one. However it is classified, it did predispose the Germans to turn to military action. While economics was not a major factor in causing the war, it did affect the conduct and outcome of the War. The industrial power of each country was a factor in equipping and suppoting the military. When the initial German offensive failed to defeat the Allies, the war became a matter of attrition and hear the Allies held the advantge. Not only did they have a larger population and economic base, but they had the navies that could blockade Germany while allowing them ti import food abd needed raw materials for the war effort. One of the unintend affects of the War was the expansion of governmens in each of the pribcipal beligerants to effectiveky harness society for war. This included unprecedented control over the economy of each country. After the War, the peace treaties imposed reparations on Germany and the other Central Powers. This is often cited as a fsctor in post-War Germany's turn to the NAZis. The Versailles Treaty was widely hated in Germany, but the reparations did not have a major impact on the ecinomy. Most of the payments were funds privided by American banks.

Medical Care and Science

Artillery and to a lesser extent machine guns were the major killers in World War I. Even if a soldier wasn't instantly killed the dirt of the battlefield meant wounds often became infected. As penicillin was not yet available, many died from even minor wounds. Millions did die and millions more were left disabled which created vast new challenges for medical professionals. The numbers of wounded was unprecedented. The solders that fought in World War I for the most part received better medical care than ever before in history, but this depended on the particular country, affecting the resources devoted to medical care. Wounded American, British (including the Dominions), French, and German soldiers got excellent care. Russian soldiers less so. Turkish soldiers got very poor care. We are not sure at this time about other countries. America was neutral for much of the War, but from an early point, the American Red Cross provided ambulance services to the Allies--both drivers and motor vehicles. The Allied and German medical system during World War I was very well organized. There were different levels of care for the wounded soldiers. Each level was increasingly less mobile the farther the wounded were removed from the front. The first level was battlefield aid by a stretcher bearer and the medical officer. The wounded were next evacuated to a main or field dressing station where emergency surgeries might occur. The Allies would then evacuate the wounded by motorized convoy to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS). The Germans had very few motorized ambulances and used horse-drawn carts. The CCS were typically located close to railway lines, still within a few miles from the fighting and served to treat patients quickly so they could be returned them to the front. Those severely wounded men requiring more involved treatment were evacuated by rail to a base hospital. After treatment there were convalescent hospitals for long-term recovery. The advanced weaponry of World War I, such as chemical weapons, created new trauma challenges for World War I doctors. Soldiers suffered terribly. Men were blinded and suffocated by the various chemical agents. The Allies and Germans had gas masks. The Russia had few, There were a huge number of terrible disfiguring facial and jaw injuries. Trench warfare protected one's€™s body from damage, but the face and upper body were exposed. Many soldiers suffered from facial injuries, such as lost eyes and/or missing portions of the face. One of the ironies of war is that advances in medical science and care often come from war. And this was the case of World War I. Major advances were made in orthopedics, such as the Thomas splint. There was widespread use of treatments and vaccinations for deadly diseases like typhoid. The Allies introduced mobile X-ray units. New antiseptics were used to clean wounds. Soldiers were taught to be more disciplined about hygiene. Armies become better organized in looking after the wounded. A better understanding of the importance of time developed. Doctors were brought closer to the front line. Hospital trains evacuated casualties. Medical staff were able to successfully treat injuries that were once life threatening, primarily by immobilizing the wounded to prevent blood loss. New techniques in facial surgery and burns were developed. There were important advances in prosthetic limb technology because of the vast number of amputees. This all led to a much better organization of healthcare systems in major countries.

Deciding Factors

Many wars are won or loss by brilliant military commanders and tactical moves on the battlefield. History is full of such figures: Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Marlborough, Frederick the Great, Lee, and others. hey have enabled small armies to defeat much larger forces. This would not be the case in World War I. It would be decided by faulty German political leadership and the material strength of the Allies. Germany was the single most powerful country in Europe with an efficient army and a Europe's largest industrial base. The German Army nearly won the war in the opening months. They defeated two Russian armies which allowed them to pursue the Schliffen Plan, although the Russians forced them to weaken the force driving through Belgium toward Paris. Only the fabled Miracle on the Marne stopped them. The war of movement both sides expected bogged down into the static warfare of the Western Front. This turned the War into a war of attrition, a development that did not favor the Germans. And while the Germans were the single most powerful nation, they did not exceed the Allies (Britain, France, and Russia) in population, resources, and economic strength. Nor did the have a navy that could challenge the Royal Navy blockade that over time could strangle the country. The German war plan was fundamentally flawed from the beginning in taking on the other three major European powers in a two-front land war and without the ability to challenge the British at sea. And the Allied naval blockade exacerbated a serious German weakness, industrialized Germany could not feed itself and unlike Britain which controlled he seas, could not import food. Austria-Hungary proved a week ally. Conscription to expand the military further weakened the agricultural sector and production of food. The Allied naval blockade in a war of attrition proved to be the deciding factor of the War. Not only was it difficult to import food, but also raw materials needed by industry. The collapse of Tsarist Russia gave the Germans another opportunity to win the War, but the Germans opted no only for a great Western offensive, but to break the Allied blockade by knocking Britain out of the War. The Kaiser decided that America was not a serious threat and launched unrestricted submarine warfare. This gave the Allies why they desperately needed--the United states to join the War. Britain unlike Germany understood from the beginning the importance of the United States. The result was by the time the Germans launched their long-awaited war-winning Western offensive, the American Expeditionary Force had joined the British and French in the trenches of the Western Front. And the American infantry would prove to be be the deciding factor in the War.

The Armistice (November 11, 1918)

Allied offensives on the Western Front cracked the German front forcing them back toward Germany. The German Navy mutined. Riots broke out in Germany cities. The General staff informed the Kaiser that they could no longer guarantee his saftey. He abdicated and fled to the neutral Netherlands. A German Government was hastily formed and asked for an armistice based on President Wilson's 14 Points. After determining that the request came from a civilian German Government and not the Kaiser or German military, the Allies accepted the German offer. The gun fell silent after 4 years of vicious fighting at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (November 11, 1918). There had been over 8.5 million soldiers killed and 21.2 million wounded.

National Views

World War I is today seen as a great tragedy in European history because of quite sensibly what occured, especially thetragic loss of life and widespead destruction. Often missing in these discussions is what diud noit occur--the German dominatioin of Europe and control of most of Eastern Europe. We often see in the modern Euroopean press complaints about influence of arather small, democratic German state. Just imagine what would have transpired if a greatly expamded authorative German Empire not only influence Europe, but totally controlled it. This is what the sacrifices of the Allied fighting men prevented. It should also be remembered that in 1918 many Europeans saw the War as a war of national liberation. The Serbians got just what they wanted--a Greater Serbia (Yugoslavia). Poland was restored as a nation and Czechoslovakia was created as a brand new nation. Although the Ottoman Empire had joined the Central Powers and lost the War, Turkey emerged as a revitalized state. For many countries war was seen as an exercise in statecraft that brought results. [Strachan] There was a great euphoria among the Allies that a new more just international system would be created, althoghh disillusionment would follow. The Germans were in shock. Many only months before had thought they had essentially won the War. This was the atmosphere in whuch the November Criminal/Strab in the Back myths took root.

Peace Treaties

The first peace treaty ending World War was the onerous Brest-Litovsk Treaty which the Germans forced the new Soviet Government to sign (March 1918). The defeat of the Russians signaled what the German people thought was victory after 4 long years of war. It thus came as a great shock when the German Western Offensive failed and the Allied strengthened by a new American Army successfully beached the German Western Front. After the Allied cracked the German Western Front, they forced the Germans to annul the Treaty under the terms of the Armistace ending fighting on the Western Front (November 1918). The principal peace treaty ending World War I was the Versailles Treaty. German was the preemenent member of the Central Powers and Germany's defeat meant the defeat of the Central Powers. The Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I was signed on June 28, 1919, about 7 months after the Armistace stopping the fighting on November 11, 1918. The United States did not sign the Versailles Treaty and had to negotiate separate peace treaties with the forner Central Powers. The Versailles Treaty had a huge impact on the international status of Germany, impacting the country territorially, militarily, and econimically. Germany was made a pariah country and largely blamed for the start of the War. Of major significance, the Germany being punished was the Germany of the Weimar Republic and not Imperial Germany as the Kaiser had abdigated. As a result, the domestic German oposition to the changes, including the territorial changes, came to be directed at the Weimar Republic and not the Imperial Government and military that had conducted the War. Other treaties were negotaited with Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

Territorial Changes

There were major territorial changes duriung World War I and even more were to follow the War. The primary changes were made as part of the Vesailles Treaty ending the War. Some occurred as referendum mandated by the Treaty. Others ocurred as a result of military engangements, especially conflicts between the Red Army and the Polish Army and white armies. The results were so resented in Germany that that they were a major cause of the rise of the NAZIs and World War II.


World War I was a turning point in European history. It was with the War that Europe lost the innocense with which it entered the 20th century. The international system was shattered by the War. Europe itself was transformed. The major countries that went to war were imperial powers. Thus the war became a world war. The destruction of many of those empires, both in and beyond Europe, had profound consequences for the 20th century. Europe's primacy in world affairs was undermined, although this was not immediately apparent. Many of the countries involved have never fully recovered. The casulaties sustanined by the major combatants, except for Russia, were substantially greater than in World War II. It is difficult for Americans to understand this as our experience in the War was much different. America entered the War in 1917, 3 years after the War began and American forced were not heavily commited until 1918. While substantial, American losses did not approach the level of the other major combatant countries. There were single battles in World War I where the losses exceeded entire wars that had been fought previously. Americans visiting Britain should stop a moment at virtually any village church they chance upon. Inside they will find a large opened book. The books is a list of the fallen of World War I. When one stops to think of similar books throughout Britain, one begins to comprehaend the enormity of World War I losses. The huge losses were comparable throughout Europe.

Political Consequences

The people of the combatatant nations made huge sacrifices to support their country's war efforts. The sacrifices in the trenches was beyond belief and te war casualties were staggering. People on the homefront also sacrified. The consequences of the War varied significantly from country to country. The British people were promissed, "A land fit for heroes" after the War. The experienced of the War radicalized politics and made the Labour Party into a political force that continues to this day. The cost of the War affectd post-War conditions which did not improve like many had expectd. TheGerman people were shocked in 1918. They had knocked Russia out of the War in 1917 and thought that they were about to win the War. Rationing had reached very severe levels, but the collapse of the Western Front surprised many. This commbined with the inflation of the 1920s and Depression of the 1930s radicalized German politics, paving the way for the NAZIs to seize power.

German View

The extent of the Allied victory was not fully understood in Germany. This was partly because the defeat was so unexpected. The collapse of the Western Front came only 6 months after the Germans had finally defeated the Russians on the Eastern Front and victory seemed assured on the Western Front. This is in part whu the lie of the stab-in-the-back conspiracy fell on such fertile ears. What the Germans do not seem to hav understood what was about to happen in 1919 had they not asked for an armistice. The British ere building a fleet of bombers that would have devestated German ciies. And the AEF that played such a major role in cracking the Seigfried Line open, was not yet fully trained or committed. The victories won by the AEF were accomplished with about 1 million men, but anothr 1 million was still training in Franc or the States. And the American manpower pool could easily have provided another 2 million draftees. The primary American contribution to the War proved to be the AEF--infantry. The AEF primarily fought with British and French weapons, largely because the United States did not have a large arms industry. America was, however, the greatest industrial power in the world. And after declaring war (April 1917), the United States began mobilizing its industry. The ,ajor industrial contribution was trucks because trucks wre alreasy in production for civilian markets. Manufacturing arms in quantity required considerable time. And only by late-1918 did arms like tanks begin to roll off American assemby lines. American tanks are just one weapon, uf an important one for which the Germans had no ansert. The United States would have doubled the number of tanks the Germans faced on the Western Front in 1919. The United States had the capacity to double British and French production which already was greater than German production. And unlike the Germans, there wa no shortages of either labor or raw materials in America. Had the Germans not asked for an armistace (November 1918), they would have not only faced strategic bombardment in 1919, but a tidal wave of American men and material. Rather than 1 million inexperienced American infantry, they would have faced over 2 million Americans, including fully trained and experinced units. And they would have also faced a flow of arms and weaponry from Americas massive industrial base--weapons like tanks. Theu would have arrived in numbers that was beyond anything the Germans, who thought the AEF and supplies would be stopped by U-bosts, could even have conceivedconceive. Incredably, a second German leader would take Germany to war with America again only two decades later.


In the immediate euphoria of the end of Wirld War I there was much public optimism. The poet that was popular was Rupert Brooke. His poems were more patriotic, expressiong the idea that there are causes worth dieing for. [Strachan, C-Span2.] Gradually that attitide change. Europeans and Americans came to believe that the War was pointless and without meaning. This is the attitude expressed in the greatest novel to remove from the War, the German book All Quiet on the Western Front. Hitler hated the book and it was one of the books burned when the NAZIs seized power in Germany. The widely preceived view of the War derived from litterary sources is today that the War was a great exercise it futility and a tragic waist. The most popular poet writing about the War today in Britain is Wilfred Owen. His poems were used in Bejamin Britton's "War Requiem". Owen's poems describe the futility of war in line with modern sensibilities. He published his poems in 1919, but sold very few copies. He was virtually unknown in post-World war I Britain. His popularity caught the popular attitudes of the 1960s and were probably popular as poems protesting war in general than World War I in particular. The poet that was popular was Rupert Brooke. His poems were more patriotic, expressiong the idea that there are causes worth dieing for. [Strachan, C-Span2.]

Historical Assessment

The literary assessment of World war I as a huge mistake and pontless caranage is the position taken by many historians. [Strachan FWW and Taylor] This is certainly the prevailing view that Europeans and Americans reached in the 1920s. There was much writing about arm merchants and their huge profits. Of course the horrendous loss of life traumatized a generation and fatally weakened the existing social structure. America passed Neutrality Laws to ensure that the country would not be drawn into the next world war. This view of the War is again popular in Europe with populations strongly opposed to war and the exercize of military force. Often ignored by both historians and Euopean public opinion is what would have happened if Germany had won the War. The Treaty of Brest Litovsk (1918) clearly shows that Germany was planning a hard peace. The result would have been a Europe permanetly dominted by Germany and its authoratative political system. Few historians who legitimately decry the terrible carnage of World war I address the alternatives and what the consquences of a German dominated Europe and the permanent weakening of political democracy in Europe would have been. Writers who claim that Wirld war I accomplished nothing ignire the fact that it did prevent Germanu from establishung a permanent dominance in Europe. The War also created many weak new European states, but failed to establish a system in which these could maintain their independence. The War also raised unleased national and etnic tensions that would have horrendous consequences with the rise of totalitarianism.

Individual Accounts

Because of the time frame, HBC readers can not offer any personal accounts of World War I. We are, however, looking for published accounts. Here we are especially interested in finding accounts of the War as witnessed by children. Unlike World War II, we have not yet found many, but hope to add books to our list as HBC develops.


Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War (2013), 736p.

Kennedy, Ross A. The Will to Believe. Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America�s Strategy for Peace and Security (Kent: 2009).

McMeekin, Sean. July 1914: Countdown to War (2013), 480p.

Strachan, Hew. Book TV, C-Span2, April 28, 2004.

Strachan, Hew. The First World War.

Taylor, A.J.P. The First World War (1963).


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Created: February 4, 2001
Last updated: 6:07 PM 8/7/2021