In late June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia. An escalation of threats and mobilization orders followed the incident, leading by mid-August to the outbreak of World War I, which pitted Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (the so-called Central Powers) against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Japan (the Allied Powers). The Allies were joined after 1917 by the United States. The four years of the Great War–as it was then known–saw unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction, thanks to grueling trench warfare and the introduction of modern weaponry such as machine guns, tanks and chemical weapons. By the time World War I ended in the defeat of the Central Powers in November 1918, more than 9 million soldiers had been killed and 21 million more wounded.
WORLD WAR I’S WESTERN FRONT (1914-17)
According to an aggressive military strategy known as the Schlieffen Plan (named for its mastermind, German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen), Germany began fighting World War I on two fronts, invading France through neutral Belgium in the west and confronting mighty Russia in the east. On August 4, 1914, German troops under Erich Ludendorff crossed the border into Belgium, in violation of that country’s neutrality. In the first battle of World War I, the Germans assaulted the heavily fortified city of Liege, using the most powerful weapons in their arsenal–enormous siege cannons–to capture the city by August 15. Leaving death and destruction in their wake, including the shooting of civilians and the deliberate execution of Belgian priest, whom they accused of inciting civilian resistance, the Germans advanced through Belgium towards France.
In the First Battle of the Marne, fought from September 6-9, 1914, French and British forces confronted the invading Germany army, which had by then penetrated deep into northeastern France, within 30 miles of Paris. Under the French commander Joseph Joffre, the Allied troops checked the German advance and mounted a successful counterattack, driving the Germans back to north of the Aisne River. The defeat meant the end of German plans for a quick victory in France. Both sides dug into trenches, and began the bloody war of attrition that would characterize the next three years on World War I’s Western Front. Particularly long and costly battles in this campaign were fought at Verdun (February-December 1916) and the Somme (July-November 1916); German and French troops suffered close to a million casualties in the Battle of Verdun alone.
WORLD WAR I’S EASTERN FRONT AND REVOLUTION IN RUSSIA (1914-17)
On the Eastern Front of World War I, Russian forces invaded East Prussia and German Poland, but were stopped short by German and Austrian forces at theBattle of Tannenberg in late August 1914. Despite that victory, the Red Army assault had forced Germany to move two corps from the Western Front to the Eastern, contributing to the German loss in the Battle of the Marne. Combined with the fierce Allied resistance in France, the ability of Russia’s huge war machine to mobilize relatively quickly in the east ensured a longer, more grueling conflict instead of the quick victory Germany had hoped to win with the Schlieffen Plan.
Over the next two years, the Russian army mounted several offensives on the Eastern Front but were unable to break through German lines. Defeat on the battlefield fed the growing discontent among the bulk of Russia’s population, especially the poverty-stricken workers and peasants, and its hostility towards the imperial regime. This discontent culminated in the Russian Revolution of 1917, spearheaded by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. One of Lenin’s first actions as leader was to call a halt to Russian participation in World War I. Russia reached an armistice with the Central Powers in early December 1917, freeing German troops to face the other Allies on the Western Front.
GALLIPOLI CAMPAIGN (1915-16) AND BATTLES OF THE ISONZO (1915-17)
With World War I having effectively settled into a stalemate in Europe, the Allies attempted to score a victory against the Ottoman Empire, which had entered the conflict on the side of the Central Powers in late 1914. After a failed attack on the Dardanelles (the strait linking the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea), Allied forces led by Britain launched a large-scale land invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in April 1915. The invasion also proved a dismal failure, and in January 1916 Allied forces were forced to stage a full retreat from the shores of the peninsula, after suffering 250,000 casualties.
At the peace conference in Paris in 1919, Allied leaders would state their desire to build a post-war world that would safeguard itself against future conflicts of such devastating scale. The Versailles Treaty, signed on June 28, 1919, would not achieve this objective. Saddled with war guilt and heavy reparations and denied entrance into the League of Nations, Germany felt tricked into signing the treaty, having believed any peace would be a “peace without victory” as put forward by Wilson in his famous Fourteen Points speech of January 1918. As the years passed, hatred of the Versailles treaty and its authors settled into a smoldering resentment in Germany that would, two decades later, be counted among the causes of World War II.