Modern History/First World War

Wikibooks Modern History
Population, Governance, Philosophy, Invention, Weapons, Combat, Trade, Exploration

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World War I, or the Great War, was a military conflict that spanned the globe, but occurred mainly in Europe. It is estimated that the conflict killed some 40 million people from the years 1914 to 1918.

The Allied Powers, consisting primarily of the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Italy and the United States, were responsible for defeating the Central Powers, consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire.

The war caused three of Europe's great empires to dissolve (namely, the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires), and brought independence to many states, such as Yugoslavia, Poland and Finland. It also led to the establishment of communism in Russia, the creation of the Soviet Union, and contributed to the disrepair of the German economy, which in turn allowed for the Nazi party to take power in 1933.

Causes of the First World War






All the Great Powers of the World began to increase their armies and navies after 1900. Each felt threatened by the increasing strength of historical enemies, and represented their own buildups as the only way to maintain peace. Thus, the Arms Race began. On the continent of Europe France, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary built up more and more powerful armies. At sea, Britain felt threatened by a German drive to create a stronger navy.

The armies of both France and Germany had doubled in strength since their last battle in 1870, when France lost Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, and France were hoping for an opportunity to get revenge.

As the countries began to strengthen, Britain and Germany began to feel threatened by each other. Britain, controlling the seas, had not created an army comparable to those of the continental states, but when Germany began to construct a fleet of seagoing battleships which could threaten British control, tension soon built up.

Since the time of Bismarck, Germany had been making staff battle plans for the cases of war with any other European country -- a standard military planning exercise, practiced by all armies. A chief of the German General Staff, Count Alfred Von Schlieffen, had devised a plan of action for the case in which Germany was attacked by France and Russia in concert. To avoid a fight on two fronts (both Russia and France), the plan was to move German troops through Belgium to the North, and then move South into France, avoiding the Franch fortifications along the Franco-German border and encircling the French armies, as had been done in the Franco-Prussian War. One of the key points of the plan was to push forward into France with every available soldier, keeping none back in reserve, in order to crush the French at once by weight of numbers. This, "the Schlieffen plan", was that eventually put into practice when war actually broke out.

However, Belgium did not simply stand aside and watch. They fought back bravely against superior numbers and more modern weapons. Though not strong enough to prevent the German armies from pushing into France, "les braves Belgiques" gained the admiration of the rest of the world. The German success here thus began to cast them as the villains who would in the end be tgged with the "war guilt" imposed on them by the Versailles Treaty and which played a part in the rise of Hitler and World War II.



With the removal of Bismarck, King Wilhelm II effectively took control of relatively new state of Germany. He was an imperialist who practiced Welt Politik, or World Politics. This is in contrast to Bismarck's Real Politik which Wilhelm disdained. The idea of Welt Politik was to add new colonies to the German empire to increase its strength and to be able to effectively challenge the British Empire.



Children were raised to believe in the glory of battles and armed conflicts, an idea that some compared to "tilting at windmills". "Eros is dead! Long Live Mars!" they were taught.

US Entry into the War


For nearly three years, President Woodrow Wilson successfully maintained the neutrality of the United States in the “European War” raging across the Atlantic Ocean. A man of very high morals and an unwavering belief in American democracy, Wilson quickly became dismayed by the massive loss of life and the extreme devastation to Western Europe. Although Wilson wanted the United States to remain neutral in the European conflict, which he saw as European power politics at its worst, he saw America as the solution to the conflict. Wilson wanted to follow his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt’s role as objective mediator for peace in Europe. However, the European powers rejected Wilson’s offer as mediator and continued to pursue their course of destruction. Activities perpetrated by both the Triple Entente and the Central Powers drew the United States closer to war, until German naval policy finally forced America into the conflict in 1917. Wilson publicly wanted to maintain American neutrality; however, aggressive German naval policies aimed at quickly winning the war guided the United States to follow Wilson’s private desires for American entry.

As early as December 1914, Wilson’s position against Germany was established. Wilson believed that the German government had to be changed and Austria-Hungary divided to ensure lasting peace in Europe. Although he privately sided against Germany, Wilson maintained a neutral public view of the European situation, blaming both Germany and Great Britain for violating the neutrality of the United States. The government of the United States shared Wilson’s outward neutrality image, despite the fact that America was supplying Britain with goods and munitions. In February 1915, the United States government warned Germany against violating American neutrality on the high seas by destroying American vessels or injuring American citizens. The United States government also protested against British attempts to violate neutral trade to Germany and other continental nations through neutral ports with the British blockade of Germany.

By May 1915, however, the United States government relaxed its protestations against Great Britain, instead concentrating its angst against Germany. On 7 May 1915, a German U-Boat sank the British passenger liner Lusitania with the loss of over one hundred American lives. Although the Lusitania was conveying American munitions to Britain, the United States protested vehemently against the use of unlimited submarine warfare and demanded the immediate cessation of submarine warfare. The German High Command understood the position of the United States and its relation with Britain. As early as February 1916, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Minister of the Navy Grand Admiral von Tirpitz conveyed the logic that since America was economically and racially bound to England, the United States was interested in the defeat of Germany, thereby making the United States a direct enemy of Germany.

In April 1916, German-American relations deteriorated further with the sinking of the Sussex and the loss of American lives. The United States government once again protested against Germany’s use of submarine warfare against British commercial vessels. However, the United States issued an ultimatum along with the protest that unless Germany immediately abandoned its methods of submarine warfare, the United States would sever diplomatic relations with Germany. Germany countered with their own ultimatum towards the United States. The German government complied with the United States’ demand to restrict submarine warfare within the bounds of international law, but demanded in return that the United States insist that Great Britain also comply with international law. If Great Britain continued their blockade against Germany, the German government would resort to complete freedom of action. The diplomatic ultimatums issued by the United States and Germany did nothing to improve relations between the two nations. Throughout these proceedings, the German government was debating the institution of unrestricted submarine warfare which had the potential to bring the United States into the European conflict.

In November 1916, the German Counselor in Washington D.C. warned against the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare. He stated that American attitude was “pro-Ally” and that the United States was prepared to enter the war if Germany refused to comply with the submarine concessions dictated by the Americans. Despite this warning, however, the German High Command believed that American entry into the war would amount to very little. The High Command believed American contributions to be solely economical and that the United States would support a swift peace if submarine warfare were resumed. The German commanders were dangerously underestimating the United States. The United States had a much larger population than the European nations, larger manufacturing capabilities, and after three years of war, a much stronger economy. The United States had the capability to send over one million soldiers to Europe if necessary, and did so after American entry into the war.

Germany declared the commencement of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February 1917, a shattering blow against German-American relations. Despite this declaration, though, Wilson was determined to remain neutral in order to “save Europe” after the war was over. Wilson continued to see himself and the United States as the “savior” of Europe. However, the United States could no longer remain on the sidelines of the conflict waiting for its end. Germany’s blatant violation of neutrality rights had forced the United States government to take action against Germany. Wilson decided to sever diplomatic relations with Germany and expelled the German ambassador. Wilson met with his cabinet on 20 March 1917 to determine the cabinet members’ opinions regarding American entry into the war. Their unanimous opinion was that the United States would have to declare war on Germany to spread democracy throughout Europe, aid the Allies economically, destroy the Kaiser’s autocratic government, and end the German policy of inhumanity and lawlessness.

On 2 April 1917, following a long series of unfortunate events and disappointment, President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. Congress voted to declare war on 6 April 1917, entering the United States into World War I. Was this an unavoidable conclusion? Based on the series of events leading to American entry into the war, entry was unavoidable. However, any number of slight changes could have prevented United States involvement in the European conflict. Had Germany not pursued a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, America would have remained neutral. Had Britain not blockaded the German coast prompting German retaliation, America would have remained neutral. Had the German High Command heeded warnings about American attitude and restrained from underestimating the United States’ potential contributions, America would have remained neutral. Wilson publicly wanted the United States to remain neutral, but the aggressive naval policies of Germany forced American entry into World War I.

Air War


Untersee Boats


Imperial German Navy Submarines trying to cut off the supplies to the Allies by sinking as many ships as possible.

Great Arab Revolt


A revolution of the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire.