World War I: The Beginning of the Second Thirty Years War

World War I


World War I, military conflict, from 1914 to 1918, that began as a local European war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia on July 28, 1914; was transformed into a general European struggle by declaration of war against Russia on August 1, 1914; and eventually became a global war involving 32 nations. Twenty-eight of these nations, known as the Allies and the Associated Powers, and including Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and the United States, opposed the coalition known as the Central Powers, consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria. The immediate cause of the war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia was the assassination on June 28, 1914, at Sarajevo in Bosnia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; now in Bosnia and Herzegovina), of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir-presumptive to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, by Gavrilo Princip, a Serb nationalist. The fundamental causes of the conflict, however, were rooted deeply in the European history of the previous century, particularly in the political and economic policies that prevailed on the Continent after 1871, the year that marked the emergence of Germany as a great world power.

Causes of the War

The underlying causes of World War I were the spirit of intense nationalism that permeated Europe throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, the political and economic rivalry among the nations, and the establishment and maintenance in Europe after 1871 of large armaments and of two hostile military alliances.


The French Revolution and the Napoleonic era had spread throughout most of Europe the idea of political democracy, with the resulting idea that people of the same ethnic origin, language, and political ideals had the right to independent states. The principle of national self-determination, however, was largely ignored by the dynastic and reactionary forces that dominated in the settlement of European affairs at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Several peoples who desired national autonomy were made subject to local dynasts or to other nations. Notable examples were the German people, whom the Congress of Vienna left divided into numerous duchies, principalities, and kingdoms; Italy, also left divided into many parts, some of which were under foreign control; and the Flemish- and French-speaking Belgians of the Austrian Netherlands, whom the congress placed under Dutch rule. Revolutions and strong nationalistic movements during the 19th century succeeded in nullifying much of the reactionary and antinationalist work of the congress. Belgium won its independence from the Netherlands in 1830, the unification of Italy was accomplished in 1861, and that of Germany in 1871. At the close of the century, however, the problem of nationalism was still unresolved in other areas of Europe, resulting in tensions both within the regions involved and between various European nations. One particularly prominent nationalistic movement, Panslavism, figured heavily in the events preceding the war.


The spirit of nationalism was also manifest in economic conflict. The Industrial Revolution, which took place in Great Britain at the end of the 18th century, followed in France in the early 19th century, and then in Germany after 1870, caused an immense increase in the manufactures of each country and a consequent need for foreign markets. The principal field for the European policies of economic expansion was Africa, and on that continent colonial interests frequently clashed. Several times between 1898 and 1914 the economic rivalry in Africa between France and Great Britain, and between Germany on one side and France and Great Britain on the other, almost precipitated a European war.

Military Expansion

As a result of such tensions, between 1871 and 1914 the nations of Europe adopted domestic measures and foreign policies that in turn steadily increased the danger of war. Convinced that their interests were threatened, they maintained large standing armies, which they constantly replenished and augmented by peacetime conscription. At the same time, they increased the size of their navies. The naval expansion was intensely competitive. Great Britain, influenced by the expansion of the German navy begun in 1900 and by the events of the Russo-Japanese War, developed its fleet under the direction of Admiral Sir John Fisher. The war between Russia and Japan had proved the efficacy of long-range naval guns, and the British accordingly developed the widely copied dreadnought battleship, notable for its heavy armament. Developments in other areas of military technology and organization led to the dominance of general staffs with precisely formulated plans for mobilization and attack, often in situations that could not be reversed once begun.

Statesmen everywhere realized that the tremendous and ever-growing expenditures for armament would in time lead either to national bankruptcy or to war, and they made several efforts for worldwide disarmament, notably at the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907. International rivalry was, however, too far advanced to permit any progress toward disarmament at these conferences.

The European nations not only armed themselves for purposes of "self-defense," but also, in order not to find themselves standing alone if war did break out, sought alliances with other powers. The result was a phenomenon that in itself greatly increased the chances for generalized war: the grouping of the great European powers into two hostile military alliances, the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy and the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France, and Russia. Shifts within these alliances added to the building sense of crisis.

Crises Foreshadowing the War

(1905-14). With Europe divided into two hostile camps, any disturbance of the existing political or military situation in Europe, Africa, or elsewhere provoked an international incident. Between 1905 and 1914 several international crises and two local wars occurred, all of which threatened to bring about a general European War. The first crisis occurred over Morocco, where Germany intervened in 1905-06 to support Moroccan independence against French encroachment. France threatened war against Germany, but the crisis was finally settled by an international conference at Algeciras, Spain, in 1906. Another crisis took place in the Balkans in 1908 over the annexation by Austria-Hungary of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Because one form of Panslavism was a Pan-Serbian or Greater Serbia movement in Serbia, which had as one of its objects the acquisition by Serbia of the southern part of Bosnia, the Serbs threatened war against Austria. War was avoided only because Serbia could not fight without Russian support, and Russia at the time was unprepared for war. A third crisis, again in Morocco, occurred in 1911 when the German government sent a warship to Agadir in protest against French efforts to secure supremacy in Morocco. After threats of war on both sides, the matter was adjusted by a conference at Agadir. Taking advantage of the preoccupation of the Great Powers with the Moroccan question, Italy declared war on Turkey in 1911, hoping to annex the Tripoli region of northern Africa. Because Germany's policy of Drang nach Osten ("drive toward the East") obliged it to cultivate friendship with Turkey, the Italian attack had the effect of weakening the triple alliance and encouraging its enemies. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 resulted in an increased desire on the part of Serbia to obtain the parts of Austria-Hungary inhabited by Slavic peoples, strengthened Austro-Hungarian suspicion of Serbia, and left Bulgaria and Turkey, both defeated in the wars, with a desire for revenge. Germany, disappointed because Turkey had been deprived of its European territory by the Balkan Wars, increased the size of its army. France responded by increasing peacetime military service from two to three years. Following the example of these nations, all the others of Europe in 1913 and 1914 spent huge sums for military preparedness.

Military Operations

On a Europe thus heavily armed and torn by national rivalries, the assassination of the Austrian archduke had a catastrophic effect.

Diplomatic Moves

The Austro-Hungarian government, considering the assassination the work of the Greater Serbian movement, concluded that the movement must be suppressed by a military expedition into Serbia. Otherwise it might become powerful enough, particularly if aided by similar movements elsewhere, to cause the disruption of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On July 23 Austria-Hungary sent an ultimatum to Serbia submitting ten specific demands, most of which had to do with the suppression, with Austrian help, of anti-Austrian propaganda in Serbia. Urged by both Great Britain and Russia, Serbia on July 25 accepted all but two of the demands, but Austria declared the Serbian reply to be unsatisfactory. The Russians then attempted to persuade Austria to modify the terms of the ultimatum, declaring that if Austria marched on Serbia, Russia would mobilize against Austria. A proposal, on July 26, by the British foreign minister, Sir Edward Grey, Viscount Grey of Fallodon, that a conference of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy settle the Austro-Serbian dispute, was rejected by Germany.

Declarations of War

On July 28 Austria declared war against Serbia, either because it felt Russia would not actually fight for Serbia, or because it was prepared to risk a general European conflict in order to put an end to the Greater Serbia movement. Russia responded by partially mobilizing against Austria. Germany warned Russia that continued mobilization would entail war with Germany, and it made Austria agree to discuss with Russia possible modification of the ultimatum to Serbia. Germany insisted, however, that Russia immediately demobilize. Russia declined to do so, and on August 1 Germany declared war on Russia.

The French began to mobilize on the same day; on August 2 German troops traversed Luxembourg and on August 3 Germany declared war on France. On August 2 the German government informed the government of Belgium of its intention to march on France through Belgium in order, as it claimed, to forestall an attack on Germany by French troops marching through Belgium. The Belgian government refused to permit the passage of German troops and called on the signatories of the Treaty of 1839, which guaranteed the neutrality of Belgium in case of a conflict in which Great Britain, France, and Germany were involved, to observe their guarantee. Great Britain, one of the signatories, on August 4 sent an ultimatum to Germany demanding that Belgian neutrality be respected; when Germany refused, Britain declared war on it the same day. Italy remained neutral until May 23, 1915, when, to satisfy its claims against Austria, it broke with the Triple Alliance and declared war on Austria-Hungary. In September 1914 Allied unity was made stronger by the Pact of London, signed by France, Great Britain, and Russia. As the war progressed, other countries, including Turkey, Japan, the U.S., and other nations of the western hemisphere, were drawn into the conflict. Japan, which had made an alliance with Great Britain in 1902, declared war on Germany on August 23, 1914. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

For dates on which all the nations involved in the war either issued a declaration of war or broke diplomatic relations, see the table The Nations Involved in World War I. For details of the causes and events that brought the U.S. into the war, see United States of America: World War I.

1914-15: Entrenchment


Military operations began on three major European fronts: the western, or Franco-Belgian; the eastern, or Russian; and the southern, or Serbian. In November 1914 Turkey entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, and fighting also took place between Turkey and Great Britain at the Dardanelles and in Turkish-held Mesopotamia. In late 1915 two more fronts had been established: the Austro-Italian, after Italy joined the Allies in May 1915; and one on the Greek border north of Salonika (Thessaloníki), after Bulgaria joined the Central Powers in October 1915.

End of the War in Europe


Beginning with a British drive (August 8-11) into the German lines around Amiens, the Allies began the offensive that three months later resulted in German capitulation. During the last week of August and the first three days of September, British and French forces won the Second Battle of the Somme and the Fifth Battle of Arras, and drove the Germans back to the Hindenburg line. A particularly strong German salient at Saint-Mihiel was then reduced by American troops (September 12-13), who took more than 14,000 prisoners. In October and early November the British moved toward Cambrai and the Americans advanced partly through the Argonne Forest. The latter thrust broke the German lines between Metz and Sedan. As a result of these offensives, Ludendorff requested his government to seek an armistice with the Allies. The German government initiated armistice talks (October) with the Allies, but they failed when President Wilson insisted on negotiating only with democratic governments. The British advance meanwhile made rapid progress in northern France and along the Belgian coast, and on November 10, U.S. and French troops reached Sedan. By the beginning of November the Hindenburg line had been completely broken, and Germans were in rapid retreat on the entire western front. The defeat of the German army had domestic political repercussions that were catastrophic to the established German government. The German fleet mutinied; an uprising dethroned the king of Bavaria; and in November Emperor William II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands. The German republic was proclaimed on November 9. An armistice commission had already been dispatched to negotiate with the Allies. At 5 AM on November 11, an armistice was signed at Compiègne between Germany and the Allies on terms laid down by the Allies; at 11 the same morning hostilities ended on the western front.

Colonial Warfare

The forces in the German colonies of Africa and the Pacific, with the chief exception of those in German East Africa in late 1917 and 1918, generally fought on the defensive. They were in some cases swiftly overcome, and in others gradually, but by the end of the war in 1918 practically all had capitulated to the Allies.


In 1914 the German colonies in Africa consisted of Togoland, the Cameroons (German. Kamerun), German Southwest Africa, and German East Africa. An Anglo-French force took possession of Togoland in August 1914. In September of that year a British force invaded the Cameroons from Nigeria, and a French force invaded from French Equatorial Africa to the east and south of the Cameroons. After many campaigns in which the Germans several times defeated the Allied Forces, German resistance was finally overcome in February 1916. German Southwest Africa was conquered, between September 1914 and July 1915, by troops from the Union of South Africa. The most important of the German possessions, German East Africa, displayed the strongest resistance to the attacks of the Allies. Early assaults by British and Indian troops (November 1914) were repulsed by the Germans under General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. In November 1915, British naval units gained control of Lake Tanganyika, and the following year the Allied forces (British, South Africans, and Portuguese) intended for the invasion of German East Africa were placed under the command of General Jan Christiaan Smuts. In 1916 the Allies captured the principal towns of German East Africa, including Tanga, Bagamoyo, Dar es Salaam, and Tabora, and Lettow-Vorbeck's troops then retreated into the southeast section of the colony. Late in 1917, however, the German forces took the offensive, invading Portuguese East Africa; and in November 1918 they began an invasion of Rhodesia. When the armistice was signed in Europe in 1918, the troops in German East Africa were still fighting, even though most of the colony was in the hands of the Allies. Lettow-Vorbeck surrendered three days after the European armistice was declared.

The Pacific

In the Pacific a force from New Zealand captured the German-held portions of Samoa in August 1914 and in September, Australian forces occupied German possessions in the Bismarck Archipelago and New Guinea. Japanese forces took the fortress of Qingdao (Tsingtao), a German-held port in Shandong (Shan-tung) Province, China, in November 1914, and between August and November of that year took possession of the German-held Marshall Islands, the Mariana Islands, the Palau group of islands, and the Carolines. After the war ended, Japan retained Qingdao until 1922, and received a mandate over the Marshall Islands, many of the Marianas (including Saipan), and over the Palau group and the Carolines.

The War at Sea

At the outset of war the main British fleet, the Grand Fleet, consisted of 20 dreadnoughts and numerous other ships, including battle cruisers, cruisers, and destroyers; and Grand Fleet was based principally on Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland. A second British fleet, consisting of older ships, was used to guard the English Channel. The German fleet, the High Seas Fleet, consisting of 13 dreadnoughts, was based on the North Sea ports of Germany.

Early Operations


During 1914 no major naval engagements between the belligerents took place in the Atlantic. The British raided the German naval base at Helgoland Bight, an island off Germany in the North Sea, sinking three German ships. German submarines sunk several British naval units, including the superdreadnought Audacious (October 27); and a daring attempt by German submarines to raid Scapa Flow caused the British naval units stationed there to withdraw to bases on the west coast of Scotland.

In the South Pacific a squadron of German cruisers under the command of Admiral Maximilian von Spee did considerable damage to installations at the French island of Papeete and the British-held Fanning Island (September and October 1914); defeated a British squadron off the headland of Coronel, Chile (November 1); and on December 8 was defeated with the loss of four out of its five ships in the Battle of Falkland Islands by a British squadron under Admiral Sir Frederick Sturdee. During 1914 and the early part of 1915 German cruisers did considerable damage to British shipping in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere until captured or otherwise put out of commission.

The year 1915 was notable for the submarine blockade Germany instituted around Great Britain. The sinking by German submarine action of the British passenger liner Lusitania on May 7 caused the loss of many American lives, leading to a controversy between the United States and Germany that almost precipitated war between the two nations. The firm stand taken by the U.S. forced Germany to modify its method of submarine warfare to the satisfaction of the American government. In March 1916, however, the German sinking in the English Channel by submarine of the French steamer Sussex, with the loss of American lives, led to another controversy between Germany and the U.S., a virtual U.S. ultimatum compelling Germany temporarily to cease its unrestricted submarine warfare.

1916 and After

The most important naval engagement of the war was the Battle of Jutland, waged on May 31 and June 1, 1916, between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet. Although the British losses, both in ships and human lives, were greater than Germany's, the German fleet, having returned to home ports, did not venture to give battle again during the war, and the British retained their supremacy at sea. Nevertheless, during the remainder of the war, German cruisers managed to run the blockade of Germany, which the British had established from the outset of the war. The Germans sank considerable tonnage of Allied shipping in the North Atlantic and then returned to their bases. In 1917 the Germans again resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare, convinced that this method was the only one that would defeat Great Britain. The plan not only failed to force the capitulation of Great Britain, but also caused the U.S. to declare war against Germany. The attacks of German submarines on British convoys in the Atlantic and in the North Sea caused much loss of shipping. As a result, in April 1918 the British attempted to block the German submarine bases at Ostend (Oostende) and Zeebrugge in Belgium; they succeeded in partially blocking Zeebrugge by sinking three overage British cruisers in the harbor, but failed at Ostend. In October, however, British land forces, advancing through Belgium, took the two submarine bases and other Belgian ports.

German Fleet Scuttled


By the terms of the armistice the Germans surrendered to the Allies most of their fleet, consisting of 10 battleships, 17 cruisers, 50 torpedo boats, and more than 100 submarines. All of the fleet with the exception of the submarines was interned at Scapa Flow in November 1918, with German captains and crews aboard. The Treaty of Versailles (1919), which ended the war, provided that all the interned ships become the permanent property of the Allies; that other warships still in German possession also be surrendered; and that the size of any future German navy be drastically limited. In reprisal against these terms, the Germans on June 21, 1919, scuttled their ships interned at Scapa Flow. See Versailles, Treaty of.

The total tonnage of Allied ships sunk by German submarines, surface craft, and mines was nearly 13 million; the largest tonnage sunk in any one year was about 6 million, in 1917.

The War in the Air

World War I provided a great stimulus to the production and military use of aircraft, including the airplane and airship, or dirigible balloon, and the tethered balloon. Aircraft were used for two principal purposes: observation and bombing. For observation of stationary battlefronts extensive use was made by both belligerents of small tethered balloons; for scouting at sea, dirigible balloons were extensively used, and airplanes were used for scouting coastal waters. In connection with military operations on land, airplanes were used to observe the disposition of the troops and defenses of the enemy and for bombing the enemy's lines or troops in action. A special feature of the war was the raids conducted by means of dirigibles or airplanes on important enemy centers far removed from the battlefront.

The first German airplane raid on Paris took place on August 30, 1914; and the first German air raid on England was on Dover on December 21, 1914. During 1915 and 1916 the German type of dirigible known as the zeppelin raided eastern England and London 60 times. The first German airplane raid on London took place on November 28, 1916, and such raids were frequent during the remainder of the war. The object of the German raids on England was to bring about withdrawal of British planes from the western front for the defense of the homeland; to handicap British industry; and to destroy the morale of the civilian population. The raids caused much loss of life and damage to property but accomplished little of military value.

From the middle of 1915 aerial combats between planes or groups of planes of the belligerents were common. The Germans had superiority in the air on the western front from about October 1915 to July 1916, when the supremacy passed to the British. Allied supremacy gradually increased thereafter and with the entrance of the U.S. into the war became overwhelming. In April 1918 the U.S. had three air squadrons at the front; by November 1918 it had 45 squadrons comprising nearly 800 planes and more than 1200 officers. The total personnel of the American air service increased from about 1200 at the outbreak of the war to nearly 200,000 at the end. Among the noted airplane fighters, or aces, were the American Eddie Rickenbacker, the Canadian William Avery Bishop, and the German Baron Manfred von Richthofen.

Summary of the War



World War I began on July 28, 1914, with the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia, and hostilities between the Allied and Central Powers continued until the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918, a period of 4 years, 3 months, and 14 days. The aggregate direct war costs of all the belligerents amounted to about $186 billion. Casualties in the land forces amounted to more than 37 million (see the accompanying table, World War I Casualties); in addition, close to 10 million deaths among the civilian populations were caused indirectly by the war. Despite worldwide hopes that the settlements arrived at after the war would restore world peace on a permanent basis, World War I actually provided the basis for an even more devastating conflict. The defeated Central Powers declared their acceptance of President Wilson's 14 points as the basis for the armistice and expected the Allies to utilize the principles of the 14 points as the foundation for the peace treaties. On the whole, however, the Allies came to the conference at Versailles and to the subsequent peace conferences with the determination to exact from the Central Powers the entire cost of the war, and to distribute among themselves territories and possessions of the defeated nations according to formulas arrived at secretly during the years 1915 to 1917, before the entry of the U.S. into the war. President Wilson, in the peace negotiations, at first insisted that the Paris Peace Conference accept the full program laid out in the 14 points, but finally, in order to secure the support of the Allies for the all-important 14th point, which called for the creation of an association of nations, he abandoned his insistence on some of the other points. See League of Nations.

The peace treaties that emerged from the conferences at Versailles, Saint-Germain, Trianon, Neuilly, and Sèvres were on the whole inadequately enforced by the victorious powers, leading to the resurgence of militarism and aggressive nationalism in Germany and to social disorder throughout much of Europe.

For additional information on historical figures, see biographies of those whose names are not followed by dates. The military conflict is also described in separate articles on major battles. For results of the war, see separate articles on individual treaties and history sections of individual countries; See also Reparations.


Contributed by:

Donald Joseph Harvey