This past Sunday was a pretty important day for the world. We Americans often refer to it as Veteran’s Day, but other countries call it Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. November 11 marks the day that World War I was brought to an end. This year is especially important because it is the centennial anniversary of the end of the war. Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
So what exactly happened for the world to go to war? Well, that’s what I’m here to tell you. Get yourself a drink, wave your country’s flag, and follow along for the chaos that was the First World War!
Road to War
Our story begins with Germany. We could go back farther in history, but I think Germany is a good place to start. However, unlike World War II, Germany was not the instigator. So all these separate states in the region of Prussia and Bohemia came together to form the modern state of Germany in 1871. This unification then led Germany to industrialize extremely rapidly. Their economy boomed and they were able to manufacture a whole lot more. Some other countries, like Great Britain, held empires around the world by this point, and Germany wanted to be involved in that. This brings us to the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885. The purpose of this conference was to divide up Africa for the Europeans to control (The Africans were actually doing pretty well and didn’t need to be controlled. But the Europeans thought them “uncivilized” and used vile methods to try to civilize them. But I digress). Fourteen countries and nations were represented at this conference, but none of them were African. So these Europeans (America was actually there too, but we have no claims to Africa by this point so our involvement is pretty insignificant) divided Africa among themselves to expand their empires. There were only a couple free nations in Africa after this– Liberia, founded by freed American slaves, and Ethiopia, who defeated the Italians who tried to conquer them, and a couple others. By the turn of the century, only a very small portion of the continent was not controlled by Europeans.
So also at this time, we have a bunch of alliances forming in Europe. We’ll start with the Three Emperor’s League, formed in 1873. This was signed by Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. However, due to conflict, this alliance collapsed in 1878. The next year, 1879, Germany and Austria-Hungary signed a mutually defensive alliance– in other words, if one of them was attacked, the other would join in support. In 1882, Italy joined this alliance, but they had a really weak military (we’ll discuss Italy more later). In 1914, Germany and the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey) signed an alliance as well.
However, this was not the only set of alliances formed. There were alliances formed in fear of Germany’s alliances. The first of these was the Franco-Russian Alliance, signed by France and Russia in 1894. There were a couple agreements between France and England and England and Russia, but nothing became official until 1907. Then, the Triple Entente was signed, which allied Russia, France, and Great Britain.
Also at this time, Germany and Britain were having a naval arms race. Prior to the war, the United Kingdom had the largest navy in the world. Germany tried to challenge that, and that put a lot of distrust between these two countries. There were also minor alliances that ended up playing a part in preparing for the initial war.
Between the time of the German unification and World War I, there were a LOT of conflicts between and within nations. So I’m gonna just give you a brief list of some of the major conflicts with a little description for each.
- Boxer Rebellion- Chinese peasants tried to overthrow the British that were there, but the technology that the British and allies possessed overtook the Chinese (ended in 1901).
- Boer War- This took place in South Africa between the British and the Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers. British ended up winning pretty decisively (ended in 1902).
- Russo-Japanese War- Russia wanted parts of China and the Korean peninsula to use as ports when their own ports were frozen. Japan wasn’t having any of this and defeated the Russians (ended in 1905).
- Italo-Turkish War- After losing to Ethiopia, Italy had no claims to African land and they were bitter. So they conquered a couple cities in North Africa which at the time were under the Ottoman Empire. This obviously angered the Turks, and they went to war. With the next war I’ll talk about, Turkey was left pretty weak and gave up some of those cities to Italy (ended in 1911-1912).
- Balkan Wars- So the Ottoman Empire controlled most of the Balkan peninsula (Eastern Europe north of Greece), and the people who lived there grew tired of being controlled by the Turks. This led to an uprising from most of the Balkan countries against the Turks. Eventually, the Balkan people drove the Turks out of the peninsula and claimed the land for themselves. The second war was really more about the people of the Balkans because they disputed who owned the claimed land. In the end, Bulgaria had to give up its conquered land (these ended in 1913).
Declarations of War
As you can see, there has already been a lot of chaos and turmoil and we haven’t even gotten to the actual war yet!!! So now on to how the war began in the summer of 1914. To help you out, I’m going to color-code this list. So the Allied Powers (Triple Entente– Russia, France, Britain–and any of their allies) will be green, and the Central Powers (Triple Alliance–Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy–and the Ottoman Empire and those allies) will be red.
Allied | Central
- In the summer of 1914, a Serbian nationalist kills Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire while they were in Sarajevo to review the military
- Austria-Hungary, obviously outraged at this, sent an ultimatum to Serbia, who then asked for help from their allies, Russia.
- Russia mobilized their troops and prepared to attack Austria-Hungary
- Austria-Hungary did not get their ultimatum and declared war on Serbia
- Russia set out to protect its little buddy, which angered Germany
- Germany asked Russia not to get involved, but that didn’t happen
- Germany also asked France not to get involved because this was Russia‘s fight (also didn’t happen)
- France ordered their troops to mobilize
- Germany declared war on Russia
- A few days later, Germany declared war on France
- Germany then invaded Belgium (they were neutral)
- This angered Great Britain, who then declared war on Germany
- Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia
- Serbia declared war on Germany
- Montenegro declared war on Austria-Hungary and Germany
- France declared war on Austria-Hungary
- Great Britain declared war on Austria-Hungary
- Japan declared war on Germany
- Austria-Hungary declared war on Japan and Belgium
The assassination took place in June, and all this happened before the end of August. But who have I not mentioned in my original alliances? Ah yes, Italy. Italy was a Central Power, but since they considered this a “war of aggression”, they didn’t feel obligated to join Germany and Austria-Hungary. When they did join the war, it was on the side of the Allies because Great Britain had promised them extra land, and like all European countries, they wanted an empire, so they accepted.
- 1914- The plan for the Central Powers was to avoid a two-front war. With Germany’s position in Europe, they had enemies (the Allies) on either sides of them with France and Great Britain to the west and Russia to the east. Germany wanted to take France out first before they had time to mobilize and then concentrate on Russia. To do that, the Germans hoped to destroy Paris. The easiest route to take was through Belgium. The Germans thought they could just march through Belgium no problem. And while they did go through Belgium to get to France, the Belgians slowed them down enough for the French army to mobilize. The Germans marched on to try to conquer Paris, but were stopped by the Allies at the Marne River.
- 1915- The Turks and the Russians fought at the Dardanelles (straits right off the coast of Turkey), and the Russians needed help to beat back the Turks. The British Navy responded and sent Marines, but that mission ended up being a failure for the Allies. In early May, German submarines sunk the Lusitania, an ocean liner traveling from New York City to Liverpool. There were Americans onboard who died, which angered the United States. Later in May, Italy entered the war on the side of the Allies.
- 1916- One event in 1916 occurred in late May and early June and was the only major naval battle of the war. It was the Battle of Jutland, and it was actually pretty inconclusive. There was not a decisive winner. Later that year, German planes flew over and bombed London, hoping to distract the British Air Force from being on the front by protecting their own people. Another major battle was the Battle of Verdun. This excruciating battle lasted 9 months and was meant to exhaust the French. Both the French and the Germans lost a LOT of people. I’m talking over 400,000 each. The Battle of the Somme, lasting five months in the last half of 1916, was a significant battle for the lives lost. The British lost 420,000; the French, 200,000; and the Germans 500,000. The outcome was only for the Allies to gain 25 miles in five months.
- 1917- Germany stepped up their U-boats (submarines) and torpedoed any ship that was not theirs. Lots of American ships were destroyed, whether they carried people, supplies, or even traded goods. This outraged the nation, and on April 6, the United States declared war on Germany. In the middle to end of 1917, Allied forces lost badly at Passchendale due to mistakes from both the French and British War Ministers. This year also saw revolutions in Russia that left them fighting each other and without a czar or leader. So, in December of 1917, Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which officially pulled them out of the war with Germany.
- 1918- The Allies began to beat back the Central Power forces (mainly Germany at this point). They pushed the Germans out of France and then out of Belgium. Meanwhile, the Turks were pushed back to the Asia Minor peninsula (where Turkey is) and out of the Balkan peninsula. Turkey signed an armistice at the end of October. Germany had little left, the Kaiser (emperor) fled the country, and armistice was signed. War was brought to an end.
I could go on and on about the effects of World War I, how it led to World War II, and all this stuff. But I’ll save that for another time. In 1919, on November 11, President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech commemorating the day the fighting stopped and the war ended (however, the Treaty of Versailles that officially ended the war was not signed until the summer of 1919, but there was no fighting between November 1918 and June 1919). He wanted those who fought and those who died to be remembered for their service. 1938 saw November 11 become a national holiday in the United States, but it wasn’t until 1954 that November 11 became a day to remember soldiers who fought in all wars in the United States. So each year on November 11, take some time and remember those who fought, not just in World War I, but in every war before and after that.
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