World War I

world war i


  • Explain the M-A-I-N causes of World War I
  • Recount the motivation behind the immediate cause of the war
  • Describe how the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary came to involve most of Europe

By 1900, Europe had industrialized, experienced a population increase and believed itself to be at the peak of civilization.  Europe was enjoyed a 50 year period of peace—which was pretty long for them.  No one expect a conflict of the magnitude of the Great War (which we now call World War I), with such devastating consequences, to erupt.

European countries—some of which, like Germany and Italy, were new on the scene—became increasingly nationalistic and were jockeying to become the dominate force in European politics.  The nation of Germany formed in 1870 out of some thirty kingdoms.  Led by nationalist Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, Prussia (Prussia is a region in Germany and is not related to Russia at all) fought a series of small wars to unify these kingdoms.  The last of these wars, the Franco-Prussian War against France, led to crowning of the first German emperor, or Kaiser.  Germany quickly rose to prominence in European politics.  It had a strong economy due to its industry.  Germany sought to challenge Britain and France.

Italy also formed as a unified nation for the first time in 1870.  Like Germany, it was also fashioned out of several small kingdoms on the Italian peninsula.  Three important nationalist leaders led Italian unificationGiuseppe Mazzini, was the heart and soul of the movement, stirring up Italian nationalismCount Camilo di Cavour, who was the Prime Minster of Piedmont-Sardinia, was the brains behind unification because he made deal with key leaders to bring northern Italy together.  Giuseppe Garibaldi unified Italy using the sword.  He conquered the kingdoms in southern Italy and brought them into the nation with the northern Italian states.  Italy also dreamed about becoming one of the European powers.



Causes of the Great War

In the period right before World War I, European countries were very militaristicMilitarism is when a culture glorifies their military and armed strength and the ideals of war.   All of the European countries started to build their armies and navies, making everyone else nervous, causing them to also build up their military.  Europe found itself in its first industrial arms race—when countries compete with each other to build a bigger military than their potential enemies—as each country stockpiled weapons in case of a future war.  This helped lead to the war.

Another thing that helped cause the war was the existence of alliances between European countries that divided the continent into rival camps.  Military alliances are usually made to try to avoid wars.  Countries are less likely to go to war if they have to take on more that one country.  Before World War I, European countries had defensive treaties—some of which were in secret—promising to come to the aid of other countries in a time of war.  Throughout European history, there was almost always a war between somebody in Europe.  However, in the period right before World War I, peace had been maintained for almost fifty years under German Prime Minister Bismarck’s balance of power politics.

As the leader of the newly formed German nation, Bismarck sought to avoid a possible two front war—meaning having enemies on both sides of it.   His alliance system kept France diplomatically isolated by creating alliances between Germany and everyone around France.  This way France would have no allies in a war with Germany and would be unlikely to pick any fights.

But Bismarck’s alliance system broke down after he was forced into retirement by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who decided not renew its alliance with Russia.  Russia was forced to find a new ally and made an alliance with France.  As a result, Europe found itself divided into two rival alliances: the Triple Alliance comprised of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy; and the Triple Entente: France, Russia and, loosely, Great Britain (the British were not firmly committed to the alliance).  The alliance systems in place before World War I helped to make a war between two rather insignificant countries into a world war involving everyone.

Imperialism was another caused of the Great War, for two reasons.  One way the building of empires caused World War I is that it caused tensions as European countries competed for colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia run high by the lat 1800’s and early 1900’s.

The other way involves the aging empires on the continent.  These two weakening empires helped cause the war.  One was the Ottoman Empire.  Based in modern day Turkey, it was struggling to keep control of the people it ruled.  It had been called the “sick man of Europe” for quite some time.  Groups controlled by this empire were pushing for independence, increasing tension and conflict in the Middle East.

The other empire was the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it was also weak.  Groups being controlled by this empire were agitating for independence and several terrorist groups were trying to convince the Austrians to set their people free.  The event that starts the war is an example of these nationalist groups lashing out against the imperial power.

Finally, nationalism also helped hasten conflict.  It did so in two ways, as there are two definitions of nationalism.  One way the word is used is to describe pride in one’s country.  In regards to this, European countries all wanted to appear strong and considered their image a matter of pride.  This nationalism helped cause the war because the countries were all trying to act tough.

But the other definition of nationalism, which is far more important in global history, is the desire for a nation of people—a group that shares a common language, culture and history—to rule themselves.  This nationalism is a dangerous to empires, which by definition control people who are different than them. The Balkan peninsula, the area of Southeastern Europe where Greece sticks out into the Mediterranean Sea, is an area with diversity.  The nationalistic interest of these different groups led many people to predict that a major war would start over nationalistic conflict there.  The Balkans were nicknamed the “powder keg of Europe” because of the volatility of the nationalistic rivalries there.

The predictions of issues in the Balkans causing a major war turned out to be right.  The desire for independence for a nation under foreign domination caused the assassination of Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist, causing a chain reaction that led to the outbreak of World War I.  The Austrians controlled Bosnia-Herzegovina, an area that contained many Serbs.  Serbia was a neighboring, independent country.  Nationalists in Serbia wanted to push the Austrians out of Bosnia so they could bring their Serb brothers into their nation-state.  Secret nationalist organizations plotted against the Austrian government and planned acts of terrorism to agitate for independence of the region.  One of these groups, the Black Hand, plotted to assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary when he made an official visit to the city of Sarajevo in 1914.  One of their assassins, Gavrillo Princip, shot Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, killing both.

The assassination of Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist set off a chain reaction leading to war.  Though the Emperor of Austria-Hungary didn’t really care for his nephew, he used his assassination as an excuse to take over Serbia.  His government demanded Serbia submit to unreasonable demands (allowing Austria-Hungary to come into their country to investigate the assassination) or face invasion.  Serbia could not agree and had to prepare for a war they cannot win.  Germany, who has been pushing its ally Austria-Hungary into war with Serbia, also declared war on Serbia.

To everyone’s surprise, Russia, because of ethnic similarities to the Serbs, declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary.  This unexpected development changed everything.  Germany, scared of a possible two front war, attempted to quickly invaded France by going through the neutral country of Belgium.  Due to some mistakes by the Germans, the invasion was unsuccessful in knocking France out of the war as planned.  In addition, Great Britain, upset with the violation of Belgium, declared war on Germany.

Germany was now at war with Britain and France, the fighting taking place in latter, called the Western Front.  Because of how it unfolded, fighting was stalled on the battlefield.  A stalemate develops where neither side was able to win due to the development of opposing trenches, spanning the whole front.  This led to trench warfare, the deadly marriage of outdated military strategy and modern weapons, resulting in the death of soldiers on both sides at alarming rates.  Despite the development of a host of new weapons to break the stalemate, the fighting continued without progress.  A war that all sides though would be quick and painless drags on for four years and changes the worlds’ concept of war forever.



World War I Technology


  • Describe the historical circumstances that led to major technological advances made during the war
  • Identify the weapons that made the war different than wars previous
  • Sum up the impact of technology on World War I and future wars.

In World War I, combat was dominated by trench warfare on the Western Front.  By early 1915, both sides on the Western Front had dug 500 miles of parallel trenches.  Each side took turns attacking the enemy trench.  The result was huge loss of human life for little to no military gain.  Because of the stalemate on the Western Front, both sides pushed the development of new technology to break the stalemate.

One of these was the tank.  The tank, a track-driven armored vehicle used to go over the trenches and punch through the enemy line, was initially developed by the British.  While the early tanks showed promise, they were never used effectively and did not break the stalemate on the Western Front.

Observation balloons were another example of new technology changing the way war was waged.  The Germans used hot-air balloon to observe enemy positions.  These balloons were raised from behind the trenches and the information collected would be sent to the commanders via telegraph.  Despite some of the advantages offered by the technology, observation balloons did not tip the scales for the Germans.

Zeppelins, German made blimps that ran on highly combustible gas, were used for reconnaissance and bombing.  Bombing was ineffective because of a lack of understanding of aerodynamics, with zeppelins often missing their targets.  Zeppelins were also too delicate to be able to have a real impact on the war.

Airplanes also were used in the war.  World War I era airplanes were propeller driven bi-planes.  Planes were used for reconnaissance at first and were later used for bombing.  They also had dogfights.  The airplane did not have a major effect the outcome of the war.  Its only significance was in spotting enemy positions for planning battles.

The machine gun did have a major impact on the war.  Both sides had rapid-fire machine guns.  Machine guns of the time were not very portable.  These guns, like the famous Maxim gun, were used to stop attacking troops.  The machine gun allowed a team of three men to easily hold off hundreds of attackers.  The machine gun is responsible for the unbelievable death tolls of the war.  The machine gun fit perfectly with trench warfare, but did not give anyone an advantage and allow them to win the war.  It just contributed to the ungodly death toll.

Artillery was another new technology that caused the war to be far more destructive than pervious conflicts.  Industrialization helped make larger and more powerful shells and cannons, like howitzers, mortars, and “Big Berthas.” Both sides used artillery. Because they fire in an arc, these weapons were used to soften up the enemy trench before attacking with troops.  While killing an obscene number of soldiers, artillery also did nothing to give either side an advantage, allowing them to break the draw on the Western Front.

World War I was infamous for the development of chemical warfare.  Both sides used poison gas in World War I.  Some of the chemical agents, such as tear gas and mustard gas, were designed to force the enemy out of the trenches so they could be shot at.  The Germans also used lethal gas that would kill anyone who breathed it.  Gas attacks were in violation of the rules of warfare.  Ultimately gas attacks proved to be ineffective due to it being uncontrollable and the development of gas masks to allow soldiers to withstand an attack with chemical weapons.  Poison gas did not play a decisive role in the war.

Another infamous weapon of the war was the German U-boat, or submarine.  Before the war, the Germans developed a large fleet of submarines.  Subs, or U-boats as the Germans called them, were used to sink ships carry war supplies to the Allies.  Because of its element of surprise, subs did not conform to the rules of war.  Due to world-wide objection, the Germans were forced to stop using the U-boats for a while.  But as the war effort became more desperate, Germany started using them again.  U-boats did not help win the war for Germany.  In fact, if anything, it made things worse.  The use of unrestricted submarine warfare—where subs attacked non-military ships—helped bring the United States into the war, which did give the Allies an advantage in the war.



Key Events of World War I


  • Explain how Russia exited World War I and its impact
  • Describe the motivation(s) and impact(s) of the United States entering the war
  • Detail the peace process after the war

As the fighting on the Western Front was dominated by trench warfare, a different war was being fought on the Eastern Front, in Russia.  The Central Powers were doing much better there and helped cause Russia to exit the war in 1917.

Russia exited the war in late 1917.  From the beginning of the war, they had been doing very poorly.  Fighting both the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians, they kept losing battles.  And, with all the resources of the country being given towards the war effort, the Russian people at home were suffering, even starving.

Russia quit fighting World War I because of the Russian Revolutions, which was actually a pair of revolts in 1917, one in February, the other in October.  In February, the government of Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in February 1917 as a result.  A new, temporary (called provisional) government took over and tried to win the war, but it continued to go badly.  Because of this, the new government was, in turn, overthrown by the Bolsheviks —a group of Russian communists led by Vladimir Lenin—in the October Revolution (also in 1917). Lenin and the Bolsheviks won the support of the Russian peasants because they promised to end the war immediately.

This ended the war on the Eastern Front, giving Germany temporary hope of having a chance to win World War I (now that they didn’t have a two-front war to fight anymore).  This also upset the Russia’s former Allies (England and France) because they saw it was Russia ditching them in the middle of a fight.  As a result, they all refused to talk to Russia anymore.  The Bolsheviks fought a civil war in the period after World War I, consolidating their control and renaming Russia the Soviet Union or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.).

But even as the Allies lost one ally, they gained another.  America officially entered the war in 1917 and finally started sending troops to help fight by year’s end.  The United States finally entered the European war for two main reasons.  One was the German use of unrestricted submarine warfare, the most famous incident being the sinking of a British luxury liner Lusitania, killing 139 Americans.  But far more important was the number of American merchant ships delivering war material to the Allies.

The second reason was the Zimmerman Note (or Telegram).  This was a secret message sent to Mexico by the German government asking the Mexican government to start a war with the United States in North America, so the Americans wouldn’t enter World War I.  The Telegram wasn’t taken seriously by Mexico.  But it was intercepted by the United States and it enraged Americans, causing public opinion to shift from neutrality to involvement.  President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war in April 1917.  But it took time for the American forces to be trained.  They didn’t start entering the field until close to end of the year.

The addition of the Americans to the side of the Allies added fresh troops and more resources, which finally broke the stalemate.  This led to the end of the war with an Allied victory.

The end of World War I would end up having a large impact on history.  There were several things that happened at the end of the war that would later cause problems.  First, the war ended because Germany could not fight any longer.  Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated—or gave up power—and a new, democratic government popped up and sued—or asked—for peace.  So an armistice was signed at 11:00 on November 11, 1918 (11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month), ending the fighting (also called a cease-fire).  Both sides began to prepare for the negotiations to official end the conflict, which was done at the Paris Peace Conference the following year (1919).  The product of these meeting was the infamous Treaty of Versailles, named after the French palace the meetings took place in.

The meeting began oddly.  Nobody talked about the two countries that started the war: Austria- Hungary and Serbia; instead, the focus was on Germany.  Britain (represented by David Lloyd George) and France (represented by Georges Clemenceau) wanted to punish the Germans for causing the war by taking territory, strictly limiting its military, and making them take the blame for the “war in a war-guilt clause.”  They also insisted that the Germans pay reparations for the cost of the war.

American President Woodrow Wilson tried to take over the role of middleman during the negotiations.  His program for peace, called the Fourteen Points of Light, warned against punishing the Germans and wanted to find a way to prevent all future wars.  He called for the establishment of an international, peace-keeping organization called the League of Nations to prevent future wars and conflicts by giving countries a way to negotiate conflicts instead of fighting wars.  The Fourteen Points also called for self-determination —meaning the people of a country should be able to choose their own government—and stressed the rights of small nations.  But Wilson was unable to get Britain and France—who wanted to make Germany pay for this terrible war—to fully agree with him and he had to settle with getting them to agree to the most important ideas of his program, which was the creation of the League.


Another oddity was that at the Paris Peace Conference, Germany was not allowed in the negotiations of the treaty and was forced to accept the terms.  Germany did so under protest because they were not defeated, but was treated like they were.  This had a deep impact on Germany and would later be the source for their desire for revenge.

And in a final twist, the United States never signed the Treaty of Versailles (although the other European countries did).  The American Senate (who has to power to approve treaties) was reluctant to give up any of its power to an international organization. Because the United States never became a member of the League, it never amounted to much and was unable to prevent World War II.



Effects of World War I


  • Identify the political, economic and political results of World War I
  • Describe how the war shaped foreign policy in the period after it
  • Speculate how World War I helped cause future conflicts

There were several key results of World War I that have had lasting impacts on the course of history.  Politically, the map of Europe was redrawn.  Poland, which was part of the Russian Empire before the war, but given to Germany when Russia pulled out, was created out of Germany.  Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were created as separate nations out of the Austria-Hungarian Empire.  Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine were created out of the Ottoman Empire.

In addition to that, an attempt was made to make an international peace-keeping organization (The League of Nations).  Germany became a democracy (the Weimar Republic), although against its will.  And Russia became Communist and shuts itself off from the rest of the world for a while.

The  seeds for a second world war were sown.  Germany was upset for being punished so harshly for the war.  Italy was upset that it wasn’t treated as an ally at war’s end (since they had switched sides, the Allies never really accepted or trusted the Italians).  Japan, who was one of the Allies, was also upset that they didn’t get to share in the spoils of the war.

Economic effects included European nations becoming debtor nations—meaning they owed countries money—causing economic problems in the 1920s and early 1930s.  Conversely, America went from a debtor nation to a creditor nation—one who is owed money—establishing it as an emerging world power.  The cost of rebuilding after the war—the destruction from it being so devastating—also further taxed European economies, thwarting prosperity.

Socially, World War I was a turning point in many ways.  Over 8 Million soldiers died in the war.  Close to the same number of civilians died.  Warfare had been changed by “total war”—the use of all the resources of a country to fight war—and the use of deadlier technology.  World War I made people scared of another war, which caused countries to let Hitler walk all over them leading up to World War II.

Global History & Geography 10



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