Chapter 1 The Great War – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 1 The Great War

In This Chapter
  • Overview of the causes of the war
  • Entangling alliances
  • The impact of technology
  • Deadlock follows advance on the Western Front
  • War of grand movement on the Eastern Front
  • Armistice and a doomed peace

Soldiers, sailors, and airmen involved worldwide: 65,038,810. Military deaths worldwide: 8,020,780. Civilian deaths worldwide: 6,642,633. Military wounded world wide: 21,228,813. Approximate monetary cost in early twentieth-century dollars: $281,887,000,000.

This was the Great War. It’s hard to imagine a catastrophe greater or more devastating, yet the conflict of 1914–1918 is no longer called by its original name, the “Great War”—it’s now referred to as World War I, to distinguish it from the even more catastrophic orgy of global bloodletting that followed a little more than 20 years later. It staggers the imagination to realize that the carnage of World War II eclipsed that of World War I. But it did, and, in part for this reason, most of us know far less about the first war than about the second.

There is another reason for the remarkable obscurity of so cataclysmic an event as World War I. Its causes seem to us much more vague and ill-defined than those of World War II. That second war was, in the truest sense possible, a struggle of good against evil—an evil, moreover, dramatically personified in such figures as Hitler of Germany, Mussolini of Italy, and Tojo of Japan. The causes of World War I, as we will see, are not terribly complex, but they are far more difficult to comprehend.

So, for us at the start of the twenty-first century, the war that opened the twentieth century is a strangely shadowy conflict. Yet, without it, there would have been no second world war. Without it, the last century would have been vastly different. And without an understanding of World War I, a full understanding of the twentieth century is impossible. The chapter that follows begins the story of World War I with an overview of this terrible seminal event.

How Did It Start?

The Swiss historian Jean Jacques Babel has estimated that 5,500 years of recorded history present a meager total of 292 years without armed conflict somewhere on the planet. So, to say that the years immediately preceding the outbreak of World War I were peaceful is very much a relative statement. True, there had been wars: In 1905, Russia and Japan went to war over territorial matters. In 1911, Italy declared war on Turkey and carved out Libya from the Ottoman Empire’s African holdings. In 1912 and again in 1913, war broke out in the Balkans. In the 1912 war, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece fought the Turks and obtained most of the Turkish territory in Europe. In the 1913 war, Bulgaria fought her own Balkan neighbors in a doomed effort to grab a bigger share of what had been torn from the Turkish grasp the year before. France, of course, still smarted from the humiliating defeat it had suffered at the hands of Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. But Europe as a whole was at peace, and there had been no general European war since the days of Napoleon I at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

 Voices of Battle “One sees many wounded soldiers with broken noses, the result of having held their guns improperly while firing.”

—Herr Wangenheim, the German ambassador to the Ottomans, on the incompetence of the Turkish army during the Balkan War of 1912

As 1914 dawned, the nations of Europe did business with one another, travelers freely passed from one country to another, and the arts and industry flourished. Europe appeared to be the epitome of civilization.

Wants and Needs

In fact, the quiet was deceptive. As we will see, Europe had been poised for a general war for years. Since the brief Franco-Prussian War, all the major nations had developed substantial arms industries, and all—except for Great Britain—had instituted programs of compulsory military service so that they could mobilize large forces quickly. All the major powers had developed elaborate war plans, which differed greatly from one another but did have two assumptions in common: that war would come, and that, when it came, all Europe would be involved.

The motives for this apparently inevitable war were really very simple:

  • Germany, only recently formed as a whole nation from a collection of smaller states and principalities, wanted to become more influential among its European neighbors and, like the most powerful of them, wanted to amass a colonial empire.
  • In contrast to new Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was an ancient and doddering relic. It consisted of a collection of peoples who really had very little in common, and it was subject to intense nationalist pressures from its Balkan provinces, which wanted to break away. Although Austria-Hungary had some ambition for new territorial acquisitions, its main goal was simply to survive as an empire.
  • France wanted to recover Alsace-Lorraine, the eastern provinces that it had lost to Prussia (now part of Germany) as a result of the Franco-Prussian War. Even more than this, the proud nation wished to exact revenge on its Germanic adversaries.
  • Russia, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was boiling over with revolution and the threat of revolution. The czar, Nicholas II, was hoping to keep the Romanov dynasty alive. Ways to do this included restoring the prestige that Russia had lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, gaining territory at the expense of its age-old rival Turkey, and presenting itself to the world and to its own discontented citizens as the spiritual, cultural, and military champion of all Slavic peoples everywhere.
  • Great Britain had no territorial designs in Europe, nor did it have a score to settle with the Germans, but it was deeply concerned with maintaining and exploiting the vast empire that it had built in Africa, India, and Asia during the nineteenth century. The continuation of this empire required a stable Europe. Insofar as upstart Germany threatened the European status quo, military intervention against that nation might not only be necessary, but desirable.
  • Great Britain was involved in a naval arms race with Germany beginning in the 1890s. The rapid expansion of the German High Seas Fleet seemed, to the British, to be aimed at them.
  • More than the other nations, Italy and Turkey watched and waited. They saw nothing to gain from initiating conflict, but they were prepared to enter an ongoing war on whatever side promised the greatest reward. Italy saw the prospect of territorial gain. For Turkey, the prize was regaining some of its recently lost lands and much of its vanished prestige.
  • As for the United States—well, in 1914, who here could envision any reason for fighting in a European war?

 From the Front On the eve of World War I, the United States may have thought of itself as safely isolated from Europe, but it was, in fact, intimately connected to that continent by an ever-increasing influx of immigrants. The vast majority of the 8,795,386 who were admitted between 1901 and 1910 were from the nations about to be engulfed in war.

A Wrong Turn

Sarajevo. The name of this war-torn capital of Bosnia, a province of the former Yugoslavia, is all too familiar today. Early in the twentieth century, however, few Americans had heard of what was then a backward provincial capital in the Balkans. In 1908, the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina from the long-tottering Ottoman Empire. The Serbs, neighbors of Bosnia-Herzegovina, saw the region as vital to their nationalist interests; influential officers in the Serbian military created a secret society, called the Black Hand, which trained anti–Austro-Hungarian resistance fighters in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 Combatants Gavrilo Princip was born in West Bosnia on his father’s farm on June 13, 1894. The parish priest mistakenly entered the birthdate as July 13, 1894, in the civil register. Austrian law prevented execution for a crime committed when under the age of 20, so Princip escaped death after he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Archduchess Sophie, on June 28, 1914.

“I do not feel like a criminal,” Princip said at his trial, “because I put away the one who was doing evil. Austria as it is represents evil. for our people and therefore should not exist. The political union of the Yugoslavs was always before my eyes, and that was my basic idea. Therefore it was necessary in the first place to free the Yugoslavs . . . from Austria.”

Sentenced to 20 years in prison, Princip’s tuberculosis worsened, and he died on April 28, 1918. On the wall beside his bunk, he scrawled: “Our ghosts will walk through Vienna/And roam through the palace/Frightening the lords.”

Into this troubled region, in June 1914, ventured Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, inspector general of the Austro-Hungarian army and heir apparent to the imperial throne. Accompanied by his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, he decided to make a state visit to his empire’s most recent acquisition. The archduke harbored the ambition to add a “third crown” to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. He saw himself becoming king of the Slavs as well as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. This self-aggrandizing plan would lead to administrative changes within the Austro-Hungarian Empire that would surely undermine Serbian influence over the empire’s Slavic population. Franz Ferdinand was eager to visit his prospective kingdom.

The archduke and duchess arrived in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, coincidentally their 14th wedding anniversary. Along the route of their procession, the couple survived the explosion of a small bomb, but when their driver took a wrong turn into a blind alley and then backed out, Gavrilo Princip, a sickly youth wracked by tuberculosis, found himself alongside the open car at pointblank range. He leveled his pistol and fired a shot into the carotid artery of Franz Ferdinand and another into the gut of Sophie. Both were dead within minutes.

A Tangled Web

Did the Serbian government play any role in the assassination? Probably not officially, but no one knows for sure. In any case, absence of proof did not stop Austria-Hungary from deciding to teach Serbia a lesson. It drew up a list of demands that effectively nullified Serbia’s sovereignty. Surprisingly, Serbia was willing to agree to most of them, although it asked for international mediation on some points.

But Austria-Hungary refused mediation. It became clear that Austria-Hungary did not want simply to avenge the death of the heir to the Hapsburg throne. It wanted to go to war. To attack and defeat little Serbia would crush a nationalist movement and secure for Austria-Hungary a firmer foothold in the Balkans. The decision to refuse mediation and conciliation triggered a chain of events that proceeded with an almost mechanical mindlessness.

 Words of War An entente is an agreement between two or more nations for cooperative action. It is somewhat less binding and more limited than a full-scale alliance.

Ever since the Franco-Prussian War had upset the balance of power in Europe by making Germany a force to be reckoned with, the nations of Europe had been bound to one another by a web of alliances, some public and some secret. These will be explored in detail in Chapter 2, “Family Affairs”; for now, it is enough to take a quick, preliminary glance at this infernal political machinery.

  • Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, a month after the assassination in Sarajevo.
  • Russia, bound by treaty to Serbia, mobilized its vast but unwieldy army.
  • Germany viewed the Russian mobilization as an act of war against its ally Austria-Hungary and so declared war on Russia.
  • France, bound by treaty to Russia, declared war on Germany and, by extension, its ally Austria-Hungary.
  • Great Britain was more loosely bound to France by an entente—an understanding—which did not absolutely oblige it to join the fray. But Britain’s sympathies clearly lay with the French and against the Germans, who presented a competitive threat to Britain’s colonial empire. As a motive for war, Britain seized on the issue of protecting Belgian neutrality, as it was bound to do by a long-standing treaty with that nation. When Germany invaded Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany.
  • Three weeks after Britain’s declaration, Japan declared its military alliance with Britain.

For now, both Italy (although it was part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the United States remained neutral. Italy would enter the war in 1916, and the United States would become involved the year after.

 Words of WarPoilu was the World War I nickname bestowed on the French soldier; it translates roughly as “hairy one.” A kepi is the traditional visored cloth cap worn by French soldiers since the mid-nineteenth century. The caps worn by enlisted troops during the American Civil War were modeled on the French kepi. The Pickelhaub, or spiked helmet, was the traditional German headgear, used in parade as well as in combat. Even the American army copied this style from the Prussians for its dress uniforms during the late nineteenth century.

Red Pants and Spiked Helmets

The armies that marched off to war during August 1914 looked like quaint forces of the nineteenth century rather than the twentieth century. Cavalry helmets were surmounted by ostrich plumes, and sabers glinted in the summer sun. The French poilus, as the soldiers were called, wore dark blue coats and bright red pants. Helmets were considered superfluous among the French; instead, soldiers sported rakish cloth caps known as kepis. German troops did wear helmets, but these Pickelhauben were surmounted by an ornamental spike that gave them either a medieval or a comic opera appearance, depending on how one liked to look at such things. (Once off the parade ground and in the field, ostrich plumes were shed and the shiny spiked helmets were camouflaged with special gray-green cloth covers. French troops, however, were still clad in blue coats and scarlet trousers, even in battle.)

Summer of Six Million

Even in countries that staffed their armies largely through conscription, voluntary enlistment was high in the beginning. Crowds cheered men who believed that they were on their way to a great adventure that called to mind the bygone days of crusades and chivalry.

All sides were confident that it would be a short war. In August, Kaiser Wilhelm II sent the first waves off with the promise that they would “be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.”

 Voices of Battle “All over Europe, young men went to war just as they would go on an unexpected holiday, delighted to escape the daily boredom of their clerking.”—James H. Meisel, Counter-Revolution: How Revolutions Die (1966)

In that summer of 1914, six million men marched—jauntily—to combat.

Big Plans

Although the parading armies looked like relics of the previous century and the emotions that drove them smacked of romanticized, naively old-fashioned patriotism, politicians were persuaded that modern war, even a big modern war, would be brief. In contrast to the feudal powers of old, they reasoned, modern industrial nations simply would not and could not finance a long war.

 Words of War The term élanor élan vital—was used by the philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941) to describe a “life force” that he believed the French possessed in abundance.

For their part, the military leaders willingly fed this political illusion. Yes, they said, the war would be brief—and productive, too. As we will see in Chapter 3, “Blueprints for a Bloodletting,” they had planned carefully for the day Europe would erupt:

  • The German General Staff had been developing, honing, and tinkering with its Schlieffen Plan since the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The Schlieffen Plan was nothing less than a formula for fighting a two-front war, against France in the west and Russia in the east, with lightning speed that would bring these allies to their knees.
  • The French had Plan XVII. It was based on recent historical precedent, the experience of the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), conflicts of sweeping mass movement. The French hoped that a series of coordinated offensives would place them in control of Alsace-Lorraine. Yet Plan XVII was, in fact, more in the nature of a collective national mythology than a fully formulated military plan. It called for the defense of the nation by means of a continual offensive, a push into Germany propelled by a secret weapon the French called élan: a vital force fueled by a mixture of spirit and guts believed to be uniquely French.

The Last Man on the Right

Something else about a modern war might have persuaded the planners and politicians that it would all be over quickly. Weaponry was far more efficient than it had ever been. Explosives were more powerful than ever before, the machine gun had been perfected, and artillery hurled shells with unprecedented velocity and accuracy. And, in the course of the war, scores of other new weapons—most notably the airplane, the tank, and poison gas—would come into their own. In short, technology had made it possible to kill more people in less time than ever before.

Indeed, the Germans counted heavily on the new technology to enable them to swing like a great scythe through Belgium and France, mowing down in short order all that came before them. Speed was of the essence in Germany’s Schlieffen Plan. The idea was to devote the bulk of the German forces to war in the West and to defeat France before the great, lumbering Russian army had even mobilized. With France crushed in a matter of weeks, the troops could be swiftly transported from the Western Front to the Eastern Front, ready to meet the Russian onslaught, once it finally got under way.

What nobody had counted on, however, is that the technology of defensive weaponry had advanced faster and farther than the technology of offensive weaponry. This hard fact would not make for a short war, but rather, ensured a long one—at least if the German scythe lost its initial momentum.


At first, that great scythe, guided by the Schlieffen Plan, worked with a terrible swiftness and efficiency. During the first August of the war, a vast army of German troops cut a 75-mile-wide swath of death through Belgium and down into France, where, still according to plan, the German army enveloped the French left flank. Again and again, the French forces fell back, battered.

Count Alfred von Schlieffen, author of the plan, had emphasized that the advancing army was to proceed in a great wheel, moving counterclockwise through Belgium in an arc across northern France so that the “sleeve of the last man on the right” would “brush the English Channel.” This great envelopment, Schlieffen believed, would surely crush the French army.

And it very nearly did. German forces came within 30 miles of Paris itself when, with his troops exhausted, and fearing that his vastly overextended lines of supply were vulnerable to attack, the German commander-in-chief, Helmuth von Moltke, gave the order to halt. Deep within France, the Germans had suddenly switched from an offensive to a defensive strategy. In response, the French made a stand at the Marne River, where, after a monumentally destructive week-long battle involving two million men, they succeeded in pushing the previously undefeated Germans northward to the Aisne River.

Race to the Sea

At this point, the two armies desperately tried to outflank each other, with the opposing lines moving westward and then northward in what came to be called the “race to the sea.” In short order, however, the futility of these movements became apparent. Once the sea had been reached, there was no more room for maneuver, no way to get around the opposing army. The result, by the autumn of 1914, was a stabilized Western Front that extended for some 600 miles from the Belgian coast along the English Channel down to the border of neutral Switzerland.

Trenches and Graves

And it was a front like no other in history. It consisted of the opposing armies dug into a system of trenches, which were a crucifixion of misery for the soldiers. Cold, wet, and always filthy, they were home to men and rats alike. The trenches were packed with troops, on average one soldier for every 4 inches of front. The crowded tedium of existence along this front was regularly punctuated by attacks and counterattacks that might or might not result in a few yards of territory gained or lost, but that certainly resulted in plenty of deaths. On an average day, 2,533 men died on the Western Front, 9,121 were wounded, and another 1,164 were missing—which typically meant that they had been blown apart and were no longer identifiable as individuals, or even as members of the human race.

 From the Front By 1915, four million young men were living in trenches. In the first year of the war, France had lost 1.5 million men, out of a total population of 40 million.

No Man’s Land

The German hesitation 30 miles outside Paris at the end of the first month of the war sacrificed any chance for a quick conclusion to the conflict. It transformed a war of swift movement in the west into four years of static slaughter, inescapable proof that, during 1914–1918, the weapons of defense were far more effective than those of offense.

As the months and years dragged by, men seemed to forget what they were fighting for. Or, rather, the object of any given battle had become nothing more than taking possession of the bleak, cratered, dead extent of territory separating the opposing trenches: no man’s land.

Western Front

In some of the chapters that follow, we will trace the course of the war on the Western Front, the battles at Ypres, Artois, the Somme, Verdun, and elsewhere. We will also look at the war as it was fought on the sea as well as under the sea and, beyond the confines of Europe, in the Middle East, Mesopotamia, Africa, and even Asia.

 Words of WarNo man’s land, one of the most enduring phrases produced by World War I, originally described the contested territory between the trenches of the opposing armies.

But it was in France, Belgium, and Flanders (encompassing part of Belgium and part of the Netherlands) that the greatest, longest slaughter took place. There, armies attempted to end the war with mostly fruitless forays out of the trenches and with new weapons, including poison gas, aircraft (used for reconnaissance, for aerial bombardment, and for air-to-air combat), new and more powerful artillery, new and more efficient machine guns, and tanks, which were touted hopefully as the only land vehicles that could break the stalemate of trench warfare by traveling over and across the trenches and through the barbed wire and other obstacles that scarred the landscape of France and Belgium.

Eastern Front

In contrast to the static combat in the West, the Eastern Front was characterized by the grand movement of large forces. The German strategy had been to crush France quickly so that the full attention of the army could be turned against the Russians. The Germans believed that it would take the Russian army many weeks to mobilize; the Germans knew that communication technology in the czar’s armies was slow and that the Russian rail system was poorly developed, so troop transport would be even slower. But the Germans also feared the might—the sheer numbers—of the Russian army once it did get into the field. A “steamroller” is what both Russia’s allies and enemies called the czar’s army.

Despite the Schlieffen Plan, however, France was not defeated, and the Germans had to face the Russians with far fewer troops than they had intended to deploy. Nevertheless, the Russian military leaders proved phenomenally inept, and although the army was brave, it was inadequately supplied and poorly trained. In 1914, the Russians suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg. In 1915, Serbia was crushed. In 1916, Romania, which had joined the Allied cause, was also defeated in combat among the Carpathian Mountains. This freed up German troops to pound Italy, a latecomer to the war, in 1917.

The New War

By 1917, the war was bleak for all sides, but bleaker for the Allies than for the Central Powers. On the Western Front, the French had replaced the superannuated and corpulent Joseph Joffre—“Papa Joffre,” as he was called—as commander-in-chief with the dashing young Robert Nivelle. He ordered an “unlimited offensive,” which failed horribly, producing not only an accelerated harvest of French dead, but also an epidemic of mutinies throughout the French ranks.

With the French reeling, Britain was called on to launch an offensive in Flanders. Like the French efforts, however, it, too, failed.

The Russians Leave

Deepening the crisis for the Allies, 1917 also brought the Russian Revolution, which toppled the Romanov dynasty and was followed later in the year by the Bolshevik Revolution. This ushered in a Communist government that quickly made a “separate peace” with Germany. The war in the east ended, and a million German troops were now available for combat in the west.

It was a new war.

 Words of War The Allies were Great Britain, France, and (until it dropped out of the war late in 1917) Russia. Japan played a minor Allied role, and Italy joined in 1916. The United States joined the Allies in April 1917. The Central Powers were chiefly Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey.

The Americans Arrive

But, in their darkest hour, the Allies gained a whole new army. During his first term in office, President Woodrow Wilson had struggled to maintain United States neutrality in the “European War.” It wasn’t easy. German U-boats, prowling the Atlantic, sank Allied ocean liners such as the Lusitania (in 1915), on which many Americans lost their lives. Although the Germans, for a time, agreed to respect U.S. neutrality on the high seas by calling off unrestricted submarine warfare, they soon resumed the practice.

On February 3, 1917, the Housatonic, a U.S. Navy warship, was torpedoed and sunk without warning. This prompted President Wilson to sever diplomatic relations with Germany. The next month, Wilson made public a document known as the Zimmermann Note or Zimmermann Telegram.

 Voices of Battle “The world must be made safe for democracy.”—Woodrow Wilson, message to Congress, asking for a declaration of war, April 2, 1917

It was a coded message, sent on January 19, 1917, that had been intercepted by British intelligence from Germany’s foreign secretary Alfred Zimmermann to his nation’s ambassador to Mexico. The telegram proposed a German-Mexican alliance against the United States. The Zimmermann Telegram galvanized public opinion, and on April 2, 1917, Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. It was approved on April 6.

Creating a wartime trans-Atlantic expeditionary force out of the peacetime American army and navy is one of the great stories of World War I. Although the American commander-in-chief, General John J. Pershing, arrived in Paris as early as June 14, 1917 (laying a ceremonial wreath at the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette, the liberty-loving French aristocrat who had come to Washington’s aid during the American Revolution), and although the first American Expeditionary Force troops followed on June 26, it was not until October 1917 that substantial units were committed to battle. Finally, in the spring of 1918, American involvement became massive, with some two million troops.

Between June 6 and July 1, 1918, the “Yanks” recaptured for the Allies Vaux, Bouresches, and—after a particularly bitter battle—Belleau Wood. The Americans also managed to hold the critically important Allied position at Cantigny against a great German offensive during June 9–15. At the Second Battle of the Marne (July 18–August 6, 1918), 85,000 American troops broke the seemingly endless deadlock of the Western Front by defeating another major German offensive. The Second Marne was, at last, a turning-point victory.

 Voices of Battle “Lafayette, we are here!”

—proclaimed on the arrival of the first American contingent in Paris, often attributed to General John J. Pershing, but actually spoken by Major Charles E. Stanton, paymaster of the American Expeditionary Force

The American triumph at the Marne was followed by Allied offensives at the Somme, Oise-Aisne, and Ypres-Lys during August—actions in which Americans fought alongside the British and French. During September 12–16, in action against a German strongpoint called the St.-Mihiel salient, they fought alone. Some 1.2 million United States soldiers pounded and then cut the German supply lines between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest. It was a spectacular success. In conjunction with the massive British offensives at Amiens on August 8, 1918, it did nothing less than bring about the end of the war. But action in the Argonne was also terribly costly to American units; on average, the Americans suffered a casualty rate of 10 percent.


The fighting skill and spirit of the American troops was formidable enough, but what ultimately overwhelmed the German forces were the health and energy of these fresh men. It was also clear that the United States was willing to pour in as many troops as it would take to win the war. Moreover, the industrial might of the United States was matchless. Faced with inevitable defeat, Germany sued for peace and agreed to an armistice, a cessation of hostilities to be concluded precisely at the dramatic 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

Requiem at Versailles

President Wilson traveled to Europe to play a major role in negotiating a final peace, which he hoped would make the Great War the war he had promised to the American people: “a war to end all war.” Although Wilson proposed an idealistic set of conditions for peace and for creating a world in which war would no longer figure as an option for solving disputes among nations, the other major Allies—Britain, France, and Italy—were interested mainly in avenging themselves against Germany and punishing that country so severely that it would never be able to make war again.

The Long Truce

The result, the mercilessly punitive Treaty of Versailles, created in Germany the hopeless social, political, and economic conditions that sealed the doom of fledgling democracy there and virtually guaranteed the rise of a militaristic dictatorship. Intended to end the German threat forever, Versailles gave the German people a reason to rearm and to follow a clique of evil leaders into a new, even more terrible war.

The Treaty of Versailles brought to Europe and the world nothing more than a 20-year truce. World War I, the war to end all war, became the war that spawned war.

The Least You Need to Know
  • The causes of World War I can be traced to a misguided struggle to restore the balance of European power upset by the emergence of Germany as a nation.
  • The outbreak of war was triggered by the assassination of the archduke and archduchess of Austria-Hungary, which set into motion a series of binding alliances among the major powers of Europe.
  • Each major belligerent had a plan to end the war quickly; none of them worked, in large part because the technology of defensive weaponry outstripped that of offensive weaponry, thereby creating conditions that virtually guaranteed costly stalemate.
  • Although World War I was fought all over the globe, the principal action was on the Western Front (in France, Belgium, and part of the Netherlands) and on the Eastern Front (in eastern Prussia, Poland, and the borderlands of Russia).
  • The United States remained neutral until 1917, when German violations of U.S. neutrality on the high seas and the exposure of a plot to form a German-Mexican alliance propelled America into the war.