Introduction – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I


In a century defined by cataclysms, the only event more cataclysmic than World War I was the war that it spawned, World War II. Without an understanding of the first world war, we cannot fully comprehend the second. More important, without knowledge of World War I, the entire century becomes something of a mystery. The frenetic despair of the 1920s, the economic disaster of the 1930s, the great dichotomies of communism versus capitalism and of totalitarianism versus democracy, the simultaneous desire for and fear of a one-world mentality, the progress of science and technology, the emergence of much that characterizes popular culture—all these have roots in the “Great War.” This is the event that launched, forged, and battered our times into shape.

Yet probably never have so many known so little about an event so momentous.

For most Americans, World War I has loomed in what seems a remote past—more remote, somehow, than the nineteenth-century past of the Civil War, which even the most casual history buff embraces. What accounts for this remoteness and lack of understanding?

Born of grand, sweeping strategies, World War I was nevertheless a conflict marked by stalemate and slaughter rather than movement and conquest. Animated by nationalist fervor, world-embracing idealism, and self-sacrificing patriotism, it was nevertheless characterized far more deeply by misery than by heroism. World War II was ultimately far bloodier, but not more dismal. World War I seems to defy and resist understanding. As one battered French soldier put it, “Humanity must be mad.”

Moreover, because the United States entered the war at a late stage, much of the conflict seems even farther away, a struggle among foreigners. Yet the American experience of the war instantly transformed the United States into a great world power, a position that it has held consistently since 1917–1918. For Americans—and for others—World War I is an end and a beginning. It is the sharp, violent—unspeakably violent—end of the Old World, and it is the equally violent beginning of the New World. The war ushered in a host of new technologies, new moralities, new visions of society, new political philosophies, new political realities, new art and music, and maybe even new emotions.

World War I is more present—far less remote—than we may think. Today’s headlines produced by the volatile politics of the Middle East and of Balkan Europe grow directly from the war and its immediate aftermath. Much of the structure of modern Europe is a product of the Treaty of Versailles. The sense so many Americans have that their country is obligated and destined to champion democracy throughout the world is a sense that was born during the Great War.

World War I is well worth understanding, and this book is intended to help.

Part 1, “The Lamps Go Out,” begins with a comprehensive overview of the war, including its origins, course, and outcome. It includes chapters on the European background of the war, the network of alliances that made war all but inevitable, and the resources and plans of each of the belligerent nations. The last chapter of this part tells how a political assassination in an obscure Balkan capital triggered the greatest conflict the world had known up to that time.

Part 2, “Home Before the Leaves Fall,” details the opening days, weeks, and months of the war, emphasizing the great German offensive that, in the space of a month, roared through Belgium and France to within 30 miles of Paris. The extraordinary Allied counterattack at the First Battle of the Marne is narrated, and the start of trench warfare is explained. This part also explores the early disasters of the Eastern Front, including the calamitous Battle of Tannenberg. It concludes with the entry of Turkey into the war and the early action at sea.

Part 3, “We Are the Dead,” focuses on the war’s second and third years, a time of stalemate unrelieved by battles as bloody as they were fruitless. Included are the British catastrophe at Gallipoli, the entry of Italy into the war on the side of the Allies, and the heroic and monumentally costly defense of Verdun.

Part 4, “Troubled Seas and Fiery Skies,” is devoted to the sea war between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet, which culminated in the biggest naval battle the world has ever seen, at Jutland. World War I also took to the skies in an entirely new kind of warfare, aerial combat, including dogfights between “winged knights” and bombing and ground attack missions.

Part 5, “Doughboys,” narrates U.S. entry into the war at a low point for the Allies and takes the war through the final desperate German offensives and ultimate Allied victory.

Part 6, “Lost Generations,” covers the Treaty of Versailles and tells how the peace following the “war to end all wars” created the conditions that made World War II all but inevitable. The final chapter discusses the great influenza pandemic that engulfed the world following the war and also addresses the profound cultural and social changes brought about by the American war experience.

At the back of the book, you’ll find appendixes devoted to who was who in the war, a glossary of relevant terms, and suggestions for further reading.


Throughout The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World War I, you’ll find four types of sidebar-style features to enhance your knowledge and understanding of the Great War.

 Combatants This feature presents biographical sketches of the most important military, political, and cultural figures of World War I.

 From the Front This sidebar gives concise facts and statistics of the war and the warriors.

 Words of War World War I created a vocabulary all its own. Here are definitions of the key terms of the era.

 Voices of Battle The Great War produced heartbreaking eloquence and stunning eyewitness accounts. Here is a sampling of quotations, including material from diaries, speeches, songs, memoirs, and verse.

Special Thanks to the Technical Editor

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World War I was reviewed by an expert who double-checked the accuracy of what you’ll learn here, to help us ensure that this book gives you everything you need to know about the first world war. Special thanks are extended to Mr. Harris Andrews.

Harris J. Andrews is a resident of Annandale, Virginia. He was born in southern Virginia and graduated from Randolph-Macon College with a BA in History in 1971. A professional researcher, writer, and editor, he is an active student and collector of the Great War, and military history in general. A member of the Company of Military Historians, he is co-author of Photographs of American Civil War Cavalry, and a regular contributor to Military Heritage Magazine. He was editor of Time-Life Books' Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Civil War.


All terms mentioned in this book that are known to be or are suspected of being trademarks or service marks have been appropriately capitalized. Alpha Books and Pearson Education, Inc. cannot attest to the accuracy of this information. Use of a term in this book should not be regarded as affecting the validity of any trademark or service mark.

Part 1The Lamps Go Out

In 1914, Europe was a civilized, prosperous, mostly content place. Then, following an assassination in an obscure capital of an obscure Balkan province, it suddenly started blowing itself up and tearing itself down. Here is the story of what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. It is a story of international politics crossing the line into world madness and collective suicide.