First World War


 In order of movement:

  • Austria-Hungary,
  • Serbia,
  • Germany,
  • Russia,
  • France,
  • Belgium,
  • United Kingdom,
  • Italy,
  • United States

 Central Powers

  • Austria-Hungary,
  • Germany,
  • Bulgaria
  • Turkey (Ottoman Empire)

 German Colonies:

  • Togo,
  • Kamerun,
  • Sudwestafrika,
  • Tanganyika,
  • Papua


  • Serbia,
  • Russia,
  • France,
  • Belgium,
  • United Kingdom,
  • Italy,
  • United States

 Ottoman territories:

  • Turkey,
  • Iraq,
  • Syria,
  • Palestine,
  • Jordan,
  • Saudi Arabia (parts)


  • no-one







The causes of the war, like most historical events, are disputed. Perhaps the main cause was the risen power of Germany as it had rapidly industrialized since unification in 1870; the decline of Austria-Hungary which wanted to prevent Serbian expansion into Bosnia but was itself on the point of dissolution into several nation states; the decline of the Ottoman Empire; and the ambiguous power of Russia (strong in numbers of soldiers but weak in weapons and command ability). Russia was developing fast and the German government may have feared it would soon become an effective rival (why didn't they think of Russia as a trade partner to make both sides more prosperous? That's a modern way of thinking, alien to the atmosphere of Nationalism of the time). There was also the ferocious military culture in Germany, founded by the Prussian king Friedrich der Grosse.

An uncontrolled naval arms race between Britain and Germany was also a factor. The Emperor of Germany (Wilhelm the second) resented the colonies of France and Britain (unaware that they were no longer profitable) and ordered the occupation of some for Germany. Perhaps his character also contributed (alleged to be an egomaniac with at least a "Personality Disorder"). In the time of Queen Victoria, especially before Unification, the Germans had been popular in Britain as providers of German Bands and marriage partners for royalty. But after Unification they gradually replaced the French as the main power to be feared. (See Riddle of the Sands).

Norman Stone argues that German ministers and top men seem to have developed the notion that "Russia had to be dealt with", and thought only in terms of having a war, sooner rather than later - when Russia would be much stronger. They thought it would be a quick war like the war with France in 1870. This is reminiscent of the way the "Neo-cons" associated with George W Bush were convinced that Iraq had to be dealt with, and saw only war as the method (and indeed continued talking about Iran). Thus two of the world's great disasters - the first world war and the later Iraq war had something in common.

But the precipitating factor was the Balkan problem of numerous ethnic groups and religions trying to form national states in an area where nationalism cannot produce a stable outcome. A linked system of alliances produced a true "domino effect" by which each Great Power was drawn into an apparently minor dispute.

An important factor was the railway timetable. This was the last war which relied on railways to mobilize the troops. Field Marshal Von Schlieffen the German Chief of Staff (1892-1906) had made a plan to attack France through Belgium. His plan was so large and complicated that no-one could face altering it. It was the only mobilization plan available. Neither the Germans nor the Russians had intermediate plans between peace and full mobilization. Therefore once troops were mobilized it was difficult to hold back from an all out war. (If troops are in trains to the designated front, the trains cannot be stopped without paralyzing the whole country). In the Cold War also a missile once fired could not have been recalled.

In general the people in charge, especially in Germany, Austria and Russia, seem to have had no understanding of the destructive effects of the military technology of the time. Twenty first century rulers seem to have the same problem, as can be seen in the effects of war in Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya and Afghanistan - or perhaps they know but don't care.

Historical Trends
In some ways both the European wars were the working out of a conflict between France and Germany that had its roots in 1648 when the main part of the Thirty Years War had ended in the Treaty of Westfalia. France, nominally under Louis the fourteenth but ruled by Cardinal Mazarin, had imposed on Germany the regime of tiny, powerless states under the influence of France. No all-German state existed from that time. Later, there was also the brutal occupation of Germany by the forces of Napoleon.

In the 18th century a German state began to arise in the transformation of Brandenburg into Prussia, which developed a ferocious military culture.

That state expanded into Poland as that kingdom was dismembered by the surrounding powers: Russia and Austria. After the Napoleonic wars Prussia was given land outside the eastern area where it had arisen, in western Germany on the Rhine. The culture of the state was one of military discipline, obedience to the king and the authorities, and nationalism - hatred of foreigners. Under Count Otto von Bismarck as prime minister (Chancellor) to the king of Prussia, it absorbed all the other states of historic Germany and became the German Empire, rapidly industrialising and with a huge army, and a sense of grievance.

Useful Reading

New book by Norman Stone- essential reading

Robert Graves - Goodbye to all that

Erskine Childers - Riddle of the Sands

The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service (Penguin Popular Classics)

Das Rätsel der Sandbank: Ein Bericht des Geheimdienstes

L'Enigme des sables

The first of the 20th century Spy novels, written before the war to warn the British about the German danger.
Riddle of the Sands DVD

The Riddle Of The Sands [DVD]

Riddle of the Sands [UK Import]

Das Rätsel der Sandbank (4 DVDs) - Große Geschichten 2

The First World War began in Sarajevo
It was in Sarajevo (in Bosnia-Herzegovina, ruled by the Habsburg Empire) that the shot was fired which sparked off the first world war when Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Ferdinand and his wife. The result was that Austria threatened Serbia, demanding compensation. Serbia called for help from its ally Russia (fellow Orthodox and Slav countries). Russia then threatened Austria. Germany came to the aid of Austria (which was more or less a satellite of Germany). Russia began to mobilize. France was allied with Russia to counter German power. Germany mobilized and put in motion General Von Schlieffen's plan to fight Russia's ally France by going through Belgium. As soon as they entered Belgium, Britain joined in because of British policy not to allow any big power to control Belgium (and in defence of an international treaty that all powers must respect Belgium's neutrality). Russia invaded Germany and so all the major powers were lined up on one side or the other. Many observers feared that the Cold War had the same structure - but the process might have taken minutes rather than weeks.

Gavrilo Princip, before he died in prison in 1918, on being asked whether he regretted starting the war in which millions had died, observed that Germany had been looking for an excuse for war (quoted in Norman Stone).

Machine guns
Once the war had started military technology determined the events. The machine gun had been perfected so that defence was stronger than attack. Traditional methods of attack by massed infantry and cavalry had been made obsolete, though unfortunately the generals didn't notice this (a famous example of Military Incompetence). Both sides dug in along a line from Belgium to Switzerland. Infantry attacks against the machine guns resulted in millions of deaths - killing on an industrial scale - the first of the twentieth century horrors. Similar trench lines occurred on other fronts: the Dardanelles; Greece; Italy. A "war of movement" only occurred in Tanganyika. There was also the war in Iraq.

Western Front
The war then settled down to the attempt to use up the other side's men and materials. Gradually Germany became weaker earlier, as a blockade prevented imports. The turning point occurred when German submarines sank the Lusitania, a ship carrying American citizens and cargo (and munitions), and the United States entered the war, with the prospect of unlimited numbers of men and war matériel. The invention of tanks began to turn the advantage towards attack (not fully actualized till 1939).

Eastern Front
The war between Russia and Germany in the east had a different pattern, mainly because Russia was not as highly industrialised as the western powers. Russia had earlier successes but lack of rail connections to the front and lack of material backup made it impossible to exploit the early successes.

In the long run, Germany prevailed in the east, pushing Russian troops back and occupying parts of Russian territory, such as most of Poland and what are now the Baltic states.

Germany's ally the Ottoman Empire lost its Arab colonies, but defended itself against the allies: British and Australian troops at the Dardanelles. Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty devised this attack as a way of knocking the Ottomans out of the war. Could it have succeeded, even if implemented competently? Probably not, but the attack was so badly led that it had no effect other than yet more deaths, mainly of Australians.

British and Indian troops invaded Basra, Baghdad and Mausul Vilayets in the Ottomans' backyard. The British army suffered a huge defeat at Amarra but eventually captured Baghdad. From Egypt British troops marched on Jerusalem. The Intelligence officer T.E.Lawrence encouraged the Arabs in the south to rise against Ottoman forces.

In Africa British and South African troops conquered the German colony in South West Africa (now Namibia) and German East Africa - a long campaign against the resourceful General von Lettow-Vorbeck. British and French forces conquered Germany's west African colonies in Togo and Cameroon.

The first power to drop out was Russia in 1917. Russia's industry was not developed to a standard sufficient to fight such a war and efforts by the allies to supply Russia were not successful. (Rasputin is reported to have given the sensible advice to the Tsar that Russia should not join in the war, for this very reason.) The soldiers lacked weapons and even boots and rebelled against their officers and the Tsar. Russia's revolutionary government (Lenin) was forced to give up territory (Baltic states, Poland) at the treaty of Brest-Litovsk (in Lithuania) which Germany forced on the new revolutionary government.

At the Versaille peace conference these territories became independent states: Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Finland.

The German supreme commander Ludendorff (effectively the ruler of Germany) tried to win the war in summer 1918 with a surge by sending in his armies, reinforced by the troops from the Eastern Front after Russia dropped out. But although he gained territory Germany was exhausted while the Allies had a new army coming from the United States. Soon his armies collapsed and he declared that a ceasefire was essential (he later blamed it on the politicians). The war ended in November 1918 as revolution broke out in Germany and a ceasefire (Armistice) was declared on 11 November 1918 at Compiègne (See the museum), northern France.

The American commander Pershing (who was not at Compiègne) predicted that the Germans had not been defeated thoroughly enough and would come back for a second round. So did Foche, the overall allied commander. Pershing and President Wilson demanded "unconditional surrender", though the terms of the Armistice were not far short. Pershing's fears of another war proved well-founded.

The Psychology of Military Incompetence

Barbara Tuchman - The Guns of August

August 1914

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence von Arabien

Sebastian Faulkes - Birdsong

Gesang vom groþen Feuer.

At the end of the war Austria-Hungary broke up into:

  • Austria,
  • Hungary,
  • Czechoslovakia,
  • Poland and
  • Yugoslavia (see Central Europe).
  • Parts of Hungary went to Romania and Yugoslavia

The Habsburgs left the throne. Russia dissolved in revolution as the Bolsheviks took power. Germany lost territory to Poland and France. Its colonies went to Britain, France and Japan. The German monarchies ended and the Kaiser went into exile in the Netherlands (he never was tried). The area west of the Rhine was occupied by allied forces. Many Germans did not accept that they had been defeated but blamed treachery by politicians. Ludendorff, the supreme commander and real ruler throughout the war, spread this story, though he himself had called for a ceasefire when he realised the army could no longer resist the Allies. This feeling fueled the rise of Hitler, preaching Revenge and extreme nationalism. Unfortunately it was to take an even more destructive war to kill off European nationalism, the real cause (see European Union, the solution to these wars).

The Ottoman Empire lost its empire in the Middle East. Out of it came:

  • Iraq
  • Jordan
  • Syria
  • Lebanon
  • Palestine
  • Turkey
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Kuwait

Russia lost its western provinces

  • Finland,
  • Estonia,
  • Latvia,
  • Lithuania,
  • Poland,
  • (parts of Ukraine).

Germany lost part of its territory in the east - part of East Prussia and its section of Poland; in the west Germany lost Alsace-Lorraine. All its colonies were taken. Many Germans, including Hitler, believed Ludendorff's story that the army was "betrayed" by the politicians, unaware that Ludendorff himself had called for a ceasefire.

The war ended the European cultural and political dominance of the world. It left behind the problems of:

The Russian Empire had become the Soviet Union and had lost territory to the Baltic States, Poland (western Ukraine) and Finland. The aristocratic culture of central Europe had vanished.

 There were millions of wounded men and psychologically disturbed people - what is now recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Perhaps these latter were an underlying cause of the next war, 21 years later. Millions had been urged to commit atrocities by their "betters". When they came home many were ashamed; others joined fascist political parties.

So many men had been killed that many women couldn't find husbands. This affected social customs. Some of the "surplus women" became the mainstays of social services, orphanages, the nursing profession and so on. They had to make their own livings and the pre-war assumption that middle class women were supposed to be kept by their husbands had to end. Many women had worked in factories during the war to replace the men who were fighting. These expected to go on working - though most lost their jobs.

Divorce became much commoner, giving some of the "surplus" women a second chance. The old rules had broken down.

Although the British Empire seemed to be intact, and had even been enlarged by the addition of Iraq and Palestine and some of the German colonies - part of Togo, part of Kamerun, all of German East Africa, and Papua - it was gravely weakened. One of the new states was Ireland. The Group Feeling that sustained it was diminished. The actions of the "Officer Class" in sacrificing so many millions of men increased resentment against this traditional ruling class, and their numbers too were diminished as many heirs of estates and the traditional rulers were killed. Perhaps as a result the rulers of the 1920s and 30s were lesser men.

At the Peace Conference President Woodrow Wilson urged the Powers to form a League of Nations to prevent future wars. It was formed with a headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. However, he failed to persuade the US Senate to ratify the treaty. The new Soviet Union did not join either, and the European powers did not believe in it. The League was seen to be ineffective and failed to prevent the wars that led up to the second world war, especially as Germany under Hitler withdrew from membership. Its main legacy was in the formation of the United Nations as a successor (but the US still ignores the UN when its government wishes).

Was it a World War?
Not really. Apart from some naval battles and a few colonial campaigns it was a European war (but finished by the arrival of the United States). Eighteenth century wars of colonial rivalry - such as the Seven Years War - had better title to being world wars as they were fought in North America, India and the Caribbean. Little of the fighting took place outside Europe (Namibia, Tanganyika, Cameroon, Togo, Papua). Until 1939 it was usually called The Great War. Maybe one day it will be known as the First European Civil War. It could be considered as the first part of a two-part war, the second world war being the second half, to resolve the unfinished business of the first.

Last revised 27/11/11


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