The First World War had many causes; the historians probably have not yet discovered and discussed all of them so there might be more causes than what we know now. The spark of the Great War was the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife by a Serbian nationalist on the morning of June 28, 1914, while traveling in a motorcade through Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Archduke was chosen as a target because Serbians feared that after his ascension to the throne, he would continue the persecution of Serbs living within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Serbian terrorist organization, the Black Hand, had trained a small group of teenage operatives to infiltrate Bosnia and carry out the assassination of the Archduke. It is unclear how officially active the Serbian government was in the plot. However, it was uncovered years later that the leader of the Black Hand was also the head of Serbian military intelligence. In order to understand the complexity of the causes of the war, it is very helpful to know what was the opinion of the contemporaries about the causes of the Great War. In the reprint of the article “What Started the War”, from August 17, 1915 issue of The Clock magazine published on the Internet the author writes: “It is thought that this war that is been ongoing for over a year, began with the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand. However, many other reasons led to this war, some occurring as far back the late 1800’s. Nationalism, militarism, imperialism, and the system of alliances were four main factors that pressed the great powers towards this explosive war.”
According to the article above, the author stresses that the nationalism was one of the primary causes of the war. In the ninetieth and twentieth centuries, especially after the French Revolution nationalism was becoming a powerful force in Europe so people that had the same culture, language wanted their own country. And that was the problem for the government of Austria-Hungary that did not want to lose their power and control. The Slavs in the southern part of the empire were their main concern since they wanted to join up to Serbia.
Militarism is the second cause according to the article above, which comes after the nationalism. To understand what the author means by militarism one should be familiar with the situation of the world in the beginning of the century, which was the result of both industrial and democratic revolutions. Britain at that time was the largest empire in the world, and it also had the largest navy. The navy was so big and strong because the Britons needed to protect their empire and maintain the sea routes between the different colonies. The Kaiser William II of Germany hated and envied Britain for having a stronger navy than his. He increased the German navy and built many warships. Britain responded with building more ships and increasing its navy too. This started a race for building more and better warships and it created tension and competition between those two countries.
Imperialism and the system of alliances are the last two major causes of the War. There was a quarrel between France and Germany about controlling the colonies, and especially Morocco, which leads to a greater conflict, the Great War. Europe at that time was divided into two rival alliance systems: Triple Entente that included Great Britain, France, and Russia and the Triple Alliance, which included the Central Powers of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and eventually the Ottoman Turkish Empire.
Austria-Hungary must take a large proportion of any blame for the outbreak of war in 1914. The reason for Germany’s part in the causes involves Germany’s “blank Check” policy. Before sending its ultimatum to Serbia, Austria needed to be sure of the support of its ally, Germany. Such support was forthcoming in the form of a telegram to the Emperor Franz Joseph on 6 July 1914. The telegram has become known to history as the “Blank Check”.
In order to balance the power, France and Russia signed an alliance. Russia saw itself as the ‘protector of Slavs’ in the war, and immediately mobilized. When the war began, the German decision that if they were going to have to fight Russia and France, they would strike at France first according to its Schlieffen Plan, and then turn West to Russia. Germans believed that Russia at the time was unprepared for war, and that it will take a long time for Russia to mobilize its army.
On July 28, 1914 Austria declared war against Serbia. Russia responded by partially mobilizing against Austria as a ‘protector of Slavs’, and Germany insisted that Russia immediately demobilize. Russia refused to do so, and on August 1 and 3 declared war on Russia and France. When war was declared in August people involved on all sides felt that it would be a short war, and will be over by Christmas.
In order for Germany to accomplish its Schlieffen Plan, Germany occupied Belgium. By August most of Belgium was under German occupation and the Schlieffen Plan appeared to be going well, but it brought Britain into the war because they had made a treaty with Belgium before, and Schlieffen Plan involved the invasion of neutral Belgium.
One of the problems during the Great War that military staffs and thinking were far behind new weapons and logistics. In other words military commanders like General Haig or Marshall Joffre were not quite ready to the war with it’s modern weapons and new technologies such as machine guns, bunkers and railroad systems that allowed to bring troops quicker into defensive positions. This was the first war in the human history where the weapons of defense were superior to offensive. The First World War is also known as a war of attrition. In order to protect themselves from modern weapons, men dug in along the whole of the Western Front. They built networks of trenches that ran 500 miles. The First Battle of the Marne was the war’s first major turning point. German army has almost reached its objective Paris in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan, but the Battle of the Marne stopped the movement of Germans in the west. Unfortunately for the Germans, the plan did not work as expected. The result was a partial success, which failed in its ultimate goal of knocking the French army out of the war early. The Battle of the Marne marked the end of the Schlieffen Plan, the end of movement in the war and the start of Trench Warfare. Eventually the trenches were stretching 25,000 miles, from Switzerland to the North Sea. On the other hand, Germans were much successful on the Eastern Front and had a series of quick victories over Russia. Only in a single Battle of Tannenberg 92,000 Russian prisoners were taken. After the failure of the German offensive, both sides made various local attempts at achieving breakthroughs. Most of these attempts failed due to the effects of modern weapons.
The First World War was the first war to use poison gas as a military weapon. Germans also had the first submarines and used them to blockade Britain by sinking British ships. The sinking of Lusitania is the famous example of the submarine warfare during the World War I. The Lusitania had civilians on board, where 100 passengers were American citizens. After sinking Lusitania a letter was sent to the German Government by President Wilson to warn the German government against killing Americans citizens.
In October 1915 Ottoman Turkish Empire enters war on German side. Turkish army began invasion of Russia and was very successful until Great Britain attacked Turkey. British, French, Australian and New Zealand were unsuccessful in invading Turkey. The action was confined to the Dardanelles Strait and the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula near Istanbul. The same year, Italy had withdrawn from the Triple Alliances when war started, and on the Eastern Front Russians were loosing their lands and over 750,000 soldiers were taken as prisoners. By the end of 1915 the whole society of Europe mobilized for war. This was to be the world’s first Total War. Women were taking on the jobs, and most male population was sent to war. The total war started when Germans used their first gas attack:
Gassing was the start of total war, because it broke all limits, the social taboos, the gentleman’s etiquette of other wars. Sometimes the shot would miss the mark and kill innocent civilians. Before the introduction of gas bombing, soldiers found it easier to overlook the fact that they were fighting on opposite sides of the field, because they had no personal motivation to fight.
In 1916 there 139 British and French Divisions were fighting against 117 German Divisions. Two sides were facing each other across the “no man’s land” of mud, shell holes and barbed wires. Sometimes the distance between two fighting powers was so close that on first Christmas both sides were singing carols to each other. One can find a good description of trenches by reading Erich Remarque’s novel “All Quite on the Western Front” were he gives the reader some insight and a look at a group of young German friends who are also fighting in World War I. It covers the horror of this war through the eyes of a young German solider, Paul Baumer. This book is not like other books and stories that glorify wars. It tells the horrors of war in detail. The story recalls the bloody details of bombing, gunfire, gas, hand-to-hand combat, barbed wire, trench warfare and etc. Remarque tells the story in the first person that makes the reader feel as if he or she is one of the soldiers, that makes the novel even more dramatic for the reader:
We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell-hole; a lance-corporal crawls a mile and a half on his hands dragging his smashed knee after him; another goes to the dressing station and over his clasped hands bulge his intestines; we see men without mouths, without jaws, without faces …
The two biggest and horrifying battles of the World War I are the Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme. John Keegan, a military historian in his interview tells about the Battle of Somme: “It was the biggest barrage that had ever been. So, they were firing over 100,000 shells a day; relentless, relentless banging and booming of this tremendous bombardment. So loud, you could hear it in England, if the wind was in the right direction (60 or 70 miles away).
Over million soldiers were killed on both sides only in a single battle of Somme during 1916. The second biggest battle of Verdun was fought at the cost of the French Army, and it is often compared to a sausage machine, because 315,000 Frenchman died. The human kind had never sees such battles throughout the whole history, with so many losses, which was quite shockfull experience for the soldiers who fought the First World War. This war resulted shortages in practically everything, and rising prices. By the end of 1916 America was still not involved in the war.
Fateful year of 1917 marked the beginning of the modern world. Several important events took place in 1917. First and the most important event was the Russian Revolution and the rise of a Communist Power in the World. The same year America enters the war against Germany. Two great non-European leaders with two different ideas of what is good for humanity emerge, and the European History becomes a World History.
Vladimir Ilich Lenin, who was hiding in Switzerland at that time, was helped by some German agents to be able to go to Russia in a sealed train. Germans helped Lenin, because they knew that if the Revolution occurs, the war with Russia would eventually finish. As a matter of fact Lenin and the Bolsheviks takes over the country on November 7, 1917. Everything that was planned by Germans came true and Russians made peace with Germany. The Western front was the only ‘show in town’, and Germans moved all their power from Eastern to a Western Front to break through the line of the enemy.
In March of 1918 Russia signed a treaty in Brest-Litovsk which put a formal end to the war and agreed to stop fighting. Russia was also forced to give up some of its land to the enemy.
The war that was supposed to be over by Christmas seemed endless; however, in 1918, after great Franco-American Offensive Germany gave up, and became a liberal Republic. It happened at 11:00 am, on November 11, after 4 years and over 8 million military deaths on both sides. Germany agreed to President Wilson’s 14 points, issued in January 1918 where Germany agreed no to have secret treaties with other countries, most importantly to end submarine warfare and to free the seas, to give up their colonial claims and etc.
Germany also had to take the responsibility for the cause of the Great War and accordingly pay reparations to Allies. By signing the treaty Germany also agreed to disarm, and give up the colonies.
The world war one had tremendous consequences on the world. “World War I killed fewer victims than World War II, destroyed fewer buildings, and uprooted millions instead of tens of millions, but in many ways it left even deeper scars both on the mind and on the map of Europe. The Old World never recovered from a shock.” According to many historians, and in particular Edmond Tailor the trench warfare was the cruelest among all wars since the Ice Age. The reason why historians think that way is because the people of the XIX and early XX century were not ready to this kind of war. People were very optimistic about the future with all the great inventions. “The last twenty years of the 19th Century, say 1880 to 1900, those years were characterized by an immense optimism. It was thought that public health, invention, the telegraph, the telephone, ultimately the wireless and the radio, were going to civilize human life in a way that it had never been civilized before. And, then, all of a sudden, what happens is ghastly war breaks out and spoils everything.” The inventions that were supposed to improve the standards of living for humanity in fact made the war more tragic. “The age that died in 1914 was a brilliant one – so extravagant in its intellectual and aesthetic endowments that we who have come after can hardly believe in its reality.” In Eric Remarque’s novel “All Quite on the Western Front” one can clearly see what war had done to the people, especially to the young generation who fought it. The soldiers who fought in the Great War often lost their interest in life. The only significance in the lives of the soldiers was comradeship. Eric Remarque also mentions in his novel what was the opinion of the soldiers about the progress, “We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. … The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.” That was the mentality of the soldier of the Great War. Nothing in the world meant anything to a soldier, other than the “war”. Remarque also shows in his novel how meaningless was the war for the soldier. There is a place in the novel were Paul kills a French soldier, and feels very guilty about it. It shows one more time how artificial was the cause of the war. There was no real cause why German would hate a Frenchmen and voiceovers. Erik Remarque shows that when Paul talks to a dead French soldier where he says, “Comrade, to-day you to-morrow me. But if I come out of it, comrade, I will fight against this, that has struck us both down; from you, taken life-and from me-? Life also.” Despite being alive, Paul considers his life without any meaning after all the horrible experiences of the war. All people who came out of the First World War were either physically or psychologically wounded.
The impact of the First World War is still with us. In many respects the events of modern Europe are a direct result of what happened in 1914 -1919. “Had there be a World War I, of course have been no Second…” Adolph Hitler himself was a product of the First World War. World War I also gave Lenin an opportunity to overthrow the government in Russia and proclaim communism.
Preston, Rolan, Wise. Men in Arms. Saunders College Publishing, 1991
Porter, Bruce D. War and the Rise of the State, Free Press, 1994
Paret, Peter. Makers of Modern Strategy, Princeton Univ Press, 1986
Keegan, John. World War I, Knopf Alfred. 1999
Fergassun, Niall, The Pity of War, Basic Books. 2000
Martin, Gilbert. A Complete History, Henry Holt & Company. 199