World War I

Introduction

World War I was fought between the Central Powers (primarily Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey) and the Allied Powers (primarily Britain, France, and Russia, later joined by Italy, Japan, and the United States). The war was sparked by the murder of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, by a nationalist Serb.1 This assassination represents the culmination of tension between Austria-Hungary (whose empire extended into the Balkans) and Serbia. Though itself a minor power, Serbia was caught up in the larger power struggle between Austria-Hungary and Russia (the latter of which supported Serbian rebellion).

At the broadest level, however, the First World War emerged from the destabilization of the five-way balance of power that had prevailed in Europe since the Napoleonic Wars. This balance consisted of five primary powers: Britain, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. In the nineteenth century, a central rivalry developed between Britain and Germany, which emerged as the two leading powers of the five.

Europe, 1914

Fronts

Fighting took place on two main fronts. The Western Front, which passed through Belgium and France, was dominated by trench warfare; despite staggering casualties (including the Battles of Verdun and Somme), this front hardly moved for most of the war. The Eastern Front, which ran through European Russia, was much longer. Since troops could not be densely packed along the entire Eastern Front, trench warfare was limited, and territorial gains and losses were larger and more frequent; nonetheless, this front also became a prolonged stalemate. Apart from the two main fronts, World War I was fought in Italy, the Balkans, and Southwest Asia.1

Fronts of World War I

Technology

The nature of combat in World War I was shaped by modern technology. Heavy machine guns and artillery unleashed constant hailstorms of ammunition over fixed regions. Mobile firepower was also of unprecedented intensity, as infantry were equipped with light machine guns, mortars, grenades, and flame-throwers. Railroad supply lines were crucial for feeding this resource-intense form of warfare. Tanks were not yet fast or reliable enough to play a major role, but airplanes were used for scouting and (eventually) combat.2

Course

The naval theatre of World War I, which chiefly involved Britain and Germany, remained a stalemate in terms of combat. The British did gain the upper hand, however, by establishing an effective naval blockade of the German coast. As this blockade began to starve Germany of resources, German U-boats adopted a desperate strategy of attacking all shipping en route to Britain, including vessels that were unarmed or neutral.A433

Among the targets of these German attacks were American ships, compelling the United States to enter the war in 1917, thereby tipping the balance in favour of the Allies. American involvement became even more crucial with the withdrawal of Russia in the same year (due to the Russian Revolution). In 1918, the stalemate at the Western Front was finally broken, and troops swept through France and Belgium to Germany; the resulting armistice ended the war at 11:00, November 11, 1918. Over fifteen million lives had been lost.K375,1,2

Peace talks were conducted in Paris, where the Treaty of Versailles was drawn up to reorganize Europe. The four dominant voices were Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, though the latter eventually withdrew from the treaty. Germany was disarmed and lost considerable territory (including its colonies), and was forced to make heavy reparation payments; its industrial capacity remained strong, however, enabling a rapid recovery. The harshness of the treaty contributed to the rise of fascism and the eventual outbreak of World War II.3,4

1 - "World War I", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2010.
2 - "World War I", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed May 2010.
3 - "World War I", Encarta 2004. Accessed May 2010.
4 - "World War II", Encarta 2004. Accessed May 2010.