World War I

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World War I (1914-1918) was a European and global war that killed 7 million people in a struggle between the World War I Allies and World War I Central Powers, followed immediately by a global influenza pandemic (so-called "Spanish flu", 1918-1920) that claimed 50-100 million lives by 1920. The pandemic overshadowed the horrors of the war, leaving survivors so traumatized that many could not bring themselves to speak of it afterward. This was the first war in which machine guns, tanks, airplanes, and poison gas were used for mass killing, shocking an unprepared world. The war is also referred to as the First World War, and sometimes the Great War, and in writing, WW I. It was also called the war to end all wars, but World War II, a mere two decades later, caused orders of magnitude more casualties.

It saw the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary, later joined by the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria), fighting and defeated by the "Entente" or "Allied" powers, led by Britain, France, (and Russia until 1917), later joined by Italy, and many other countries. The U.S., initially neutral, tried to broker a settlement but in April, 1917, it declared war on Germany. The U.S. cooperated with the Allies but did not formally join them, and it negotiated peace separately. The Central Powers collapsed in November, 1918; Germany accepted an "armistice" that in practice was a total surrender.

Timeline of Western Front

The conflagration was a "world war" because every continent became involved. Most of the fighting took place on the "Western Front" (northern France) and the "Eastern Front" (Poland), with other campaigns in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Palestine, Iraq and East Africa. The naval war was fought primarily in the North Sea, the north Atlantic, and the Mediterranean. It was called the Great War because of its size and profound impact on peoples and governments.

It was the first total war. Every major power used the modern tools of railroads, factories, mines, telegraphs, radio, banking, newspapers, medicine, chemistry, naval and aeronautical engineering, and bureaucratic management to channel as many resources as possible into the war effort. Public opinion proved critical--the winners sustained the morale of their troops and the resolution of civilians; the losers failed in large part because they forfeited the confidence of their soldiers and the support of the homefront.

In 1914 few dreamed that the war would last over four years, engulf the world, leave seven million dead, cost two trillion dollars (in 2007 dollars), wipe out the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Turkish empires, ruin Italy, and leave the United States the dominant power on the globe. The British Empire survived the war, although it had to give virtually complete autonomy to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The French, Belgian and Italian Empires also survived. The US "Empire" shrank, as Congress made a commitment to give the Philippines its eventual independence, and to integrate Puerto Rico by granting full citizenship.

The term "First World War" is found as early as 1920,[1] but did not become widespread until 1939.


What caused the Great War? How did the conflict start? Was it a case of small mistakes escalating into a conflict that no one really wanted, or was the war an unavoidable consequence of deep conflicts? Why did it become stalemated? Why could it not be terminated? Most ominous of all, could it happen again? The war began in 1914 between two coalitions. The "Central Powers" comprised the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, later joined by the Ottoman Empire. The "Allies" included the British, Russian and French Empires, Japan, and Serbia.[2] The powers had vast overseas empires in Asia, Africa and the Western Hemisphere (including Canada) that were active participants.

In examining this war the "who" and "when" questions are less interesting than the "how" and "why" problems. Since 1870 there had been no large war in Europe, largely because the major countries joined one of the two great alliances. Fear of a small conflict escalating into a large war provided deterrence--until 1914 when the system broke down. Historians and political scientists have debated endlessly why the system of alliances and deterrence collapsed, and how the Great War could have been avoided.

Ethnic nationalism

Nationalism and ethnic tensions between Germans and Slavs were the basic reasons that the war was fought. Religious affiliations overlapped language to produce closed ethnic communities which were highly motivated to fight their traditional enemies. Typically, each ethnic group dominated a central homeland, which had minorities, and also claimed a larger territory. Some claims were centuries old, others were new; they all overlapped. The incantation "it's ours because we were here first" cast a spell on otherwise peaceful peoples and guaranteed perpetual hostility.

For 800 years the Germans had been moving east in Europe, pushing out the Slavs. Wealth was based on agriculture, so possession of land was decisive. Germany had been unified from Prussia and numerous smaller countries in 1870, and rapidly built a powerful industrial economy with a strong agricultural base. Active imperialism led to the acquisition of numerous colonies in Africa and the Pacific, such as New Guinea. None of the colonies were profitable, but now Germany had a world empire. German’s main rival was Britain, with a smaller home population and a much larger empire, well protected by the world's strongest navy. By 1914 under the leadership of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Germany had a good fleet, but the Royal Navy remained well ahead in sea power. The naval race heightened rivalries between the two powers, but did not itself cause the war.

After 1900 the Slavs--led by huge Russia and little Serbia-- were fighting back. Militant Pan-Slavic ideology demanded that oppressive German, Hungarian and Ottoman rule be overthrown, so that the Slavs could have their own nation states. Trouble flared in the Balkans, where two recent wars had revealed a propensity to use violence as a first remedy.

Belgrade (the capital of Serbia) promoted unrest among Serbs in nearby Bosnia-Herzogovina, a multi-ethnic region that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had recently taken from Turkey and now planned to incorporate. The imperial capital, Vienna, was increasingly nervous that unrest among the various minority groups would lead to the breakup of its empire. The only way to keep control was to aggressively suppress nationalist uprisings and stop outsiders from inciting rebellion.

On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated while visiting the city of Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, one of several assassins sent by The Black Hand, a pan-Slavic group financed by mid-level Serbian officials. Following the assassination and Germany's giving of a 'blank check' of support to the Austro-Hungarians, a series of demands were issued to Serbia by Austria-Hungary with a strict 48-hour deadline. While the Serbian government offered to meet many of the demands, Prime Minister Nikola Pasic refused to turn over three men identified by Austrian authorities as being behind the attacks, declaring that to do so "would be a violation of Serbia's Constitution and criminal in law." Three days later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia.

Alliances and Escalation

The Austrian Empire’s response escalated the conflict. The escalation was facilitated by the alliance network the major countries had built. Austria was closely allied to Germany and Italy through the "Triple Alliance" of 1882. Turkey was close to Germany and hostile to Russia. Russia and France were allied since 1894. Russia, acting without French approval, played the role of protector of the smaller Slavic nations, especially Serbia.

Britain remained aloof from the alliance system. Germany, influenced by the naval theories of the American Alfred Thayer Mahan, embarked on a campaign of naval building, which [[William II (Germany)|the Kaiser] and his naval minister, Alfred von Tirpitz, hoped would help Germany achieve her "place in the sun" among the world powers, and perhaps force the British into an alliance through fear of German naval power. The British responded with an even bigger naval program. The German naval building campaign could not meet its goals, and the British became increasingly alienated from the Germans, whom they increasingly saw as rivals and potential European hegemons. The "Entente Cordiale" of 1904, which dealt with outstanding colonial questions between France and Britain in North Africa, was not a military alliance but it did symbolized Franco-British rapprochement. The Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 settled outstanding conflicts of interest between Russia and Britain. As a result there was a general alignment of France, Britain, and Russia known as the "Triple Entente."

Britain thus was officially neutral but was unwilling to accept the possibility that Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire would control the European continent militarily and economically. The United States refused to become involved in any way and insisted on complete neutrality.

Preparation for War

Convinced that now was the time for a showdown, Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia. Germany supported Austria. Russia announced support for Serbia, and France supported its ally Russia. Each nation in Europe (except Britain) had long trained most or all its young men in the army for two or three years, then retained them for long periods in reserves. That meant each country had a small professional army, and a very large reserve army that could be mobilized in a few days. Russia mobilized on July 28, followed in a matter of days or even hours by its rivals and allies.

The Central powers had about 7.5 million regulars and reservists; Germany had 4.5 million, Austria 3.0 million; (in addition they were joined by Turkey with 2.9 million and Bulgaria with 1.2 million.) The Allies had larger numbers, Russia 6.0 million; France 4.0 million; Britain and Empire, 1.0 million; and Serbia 200 thousand, for a total of 11.0 million at the start. Later the Allies were joined by Italy (5.6 million), and the United States (4.4 million), as well as smaller countries.[3] In the course of the war 1914-1917 the Central powers used 23 million different soldiers and the Allies 43 million. In 1914 the long-term numbers did not matter--it only mattered how many combat soldiers could be sent in a few days to defend the border, or better, to invade the neighbor. The Germans, with better organization and better railroads, made the most effective use of their manpower, while the dinosaur-like Russian Empire ran far behind schedule.

Few leaders seem to have feared war in 1914--indeed, the prevailing mood was that the world had become too cultured, too dull and boring. All the nations wanted to win, and their generals told them the way to win was take the offensive. The logic comprised two parts: First, armies were more mobile because of elaborate railroad networks, telegraph systems and highly detailed mobilization plans. Second, firepower was much greater because of the vastly bigger armies and because the new industrial technology had created better offensive weapons, especially artillery, against which no one had developed defenses. Therefore the offense could whip the defense, and the first to attack would win. The last great war, between France and Germany in 1870-71 had been decided in a matter of weeks. No one looked back to the drawn-out American Civil War, as a warning.

The Guns of August, 1914

War Plans

All the belligerents had offensive war plans worked out in advance, but Berlin moved first. The challenge, as table 1 shows, was that the Allies could mobilize far more soldiers, and thus more firepower in 1914. The great planner Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen had solved this problem in 1905 by relying on superior mobility. He calculated that Germany's better trained, better organized, better led soldiers could wheel across northern France and capture Paris in a matter of weeks, before the French knew what hit them. The large Russian army supposedly would take months to mobilize; a small force in the east could hold it while the main enemy, France, was defeated. The war could be won in weeks!

One problem was that the wheel had to revolve through neutral Belgium, and Britain and Germany had both guaranteed Belgian neutrality. No one knew whether or not London would enter the war if Belgium were invaded, but Berlin decided to take the risk to gain a quick victory. Citing the "necessity of warfare" the Germans used a modified Schlieffen plan and invaded Belgium on August 3; Britain promptly declared war. Russia mobilized faster than expected and launched an offensive; Germany thereupon pulled troops out of the wheel to rush them to the east. The Germans became overextended--the radius was too great for their wheel, so supply problems mounted and the high command was too far from the front lines to keep track of fast-breaking developments. The Belgian army was easily crushed, but to the astonishment and dismay of the Germans, Belgian civilians systematically destroyed their own railroad system. Blowing up trestles, bridges and signalling gear, the Belgians ruined the very railroads the Germans had planned to use to rush their armies into France. The Germans were outraged at what they considered war crimes, and systematically shot civilians suspected of being involved. They burned cities and committed what the rest of the world considered atrocities--but which the Germans insisted was allowable in combatting guerrilla warfare.[4] In the first Battle of the Marne, outside Paris, the French lines held. A widening gap between the First and Second German armies, caused by poor communication, invited a French counterattack, which forced the Germans to pull back. The Schlieffen Plan had failed.

Western Front 1914 and Schlieffen Plan

Political results of stalemate on the Western Front

Lack of quick victory for either side had profound implications. At the highest level, each nation had to be concerned with the diplomacy that would bring allies, with internal political cohesion, and with the psychological mood of the people. An important weapon was propaganda. Less educated people were told of the glories of the nation; more sophisticated audiences read atrocity stories demonstrating the moral inferiority of the enemy. All the major powers had complex societies, with numerous competing ethnic, religious, racial, regional, and class divisions.

The experience of the war showed that democracies had a more effective mechanism for expressing the opinions of the different groups, and aggregating them into a national consensus. The political systems of the non-democratic nations were unable to withstand the agony of defeat. Each power had followed the lead of Germany and turned control of its army over to a professional general staff. While aristocratic heritage was still a distinct advantage before the war, professionalization made performance and merit of increasing importance during the war.

Everywhere the distinction was made between the civilian war ministry (which raised soldiers and provided supplies), and the general staff of officers who made the military decisions. In Germany, however, General Erich von Ludendorff and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg bypassed civilian officials and made basic national decisions increasingly by themselves.

Long term resources

It is unlikely the Schlieffen Plan would have won the war in any case, for the French were good on the defense and had an easier time the further into their country the enemy advanced. Soon all the battle lines in the west solidified into a stalemate 475 miles long between Switzerland and the English Channel--the Western Front. The Central Powers had the advantages of controlling a compact mass of land in the center of Europe. They had an excellent railroad system and their internal lines of communication made logistics relatively easier. At one point they moved 8 divisions from the Western to the Eastern front in less than a week. Their industrial and agricultural base was good, but not as deep as the Allies. Cut off by the British naval blockade from imports from overseas neutrals such at the United States and Argentina, the Central Powers were unable to substitute overseas labor for their own. That is, as they pulled men out of the fields they lost food they could not replace. In terms of military technology, the two sides were about equal. Planners of the Central powers in Berlin and Vienna (and later Constantinople [Turkey] and Sofia [Bulgaria]) found it relatively easy to coordinate strategy. On the other hand, the empires and armies of the Central Powers comprised so many ethnic groups with their own political agendas that political instability was a fatal weakness.

The Allies had more people, a larger industrial and agricultural base, and a world-wide network of colonies. However the Allies were geographically disconnected so it was impossible for them to rush divisions between the Eastern and Western fronts. Russia was alone in the East, and having an inefficient--indeed, incompetent government, it proved unable to stand up to the concentrated power of the German army. Logistics posed serious problems; with American entry the challenge of moving men and supplies three thousand miles across a submarine-ridden ocean became daunting.

Politically, the British and French were democratic, so their governments were more attuned to public opinion and in turn could count on more enthusiastic public support. One key advantage was that they had superior sea power which bottled up the fleets of the Central Powers, captured their merchant ships, and blockaded their ports. London aggressively used its navy to make sure the neutral nations (the United States, Scandinavia, Holland and Latin America) would not ship food or munitions to Germany. The Allies, jealous of their national pride, failed to coordinate their land or sea strategies until 1918.

Economic Mobilization

Total war demanded total mobilization of all the nation's resources for a common goal. Manpower had to be channeled into the front lines (all the powers except the US and Britain had large trained reserves designed just for that). Behind the lines labor power had to be redirected away from less necessary activities that were luxuries during a total war. In particular, vast munitions industries had to be built up to provide shells, guns, warships, uniforms, airplanes, and a hundred other weapons both old and new. Agriculture had to be mobilized as well, to provide food for both civilians and for soldiers (many of whom had been farmers), and for horses to move supplies. Transportation in general was a challenge, especially when Britain and Germany each tried to intercept merchant ships headed for the enemy. Above all, it was essential to conduct the mobilization in such a way that the short term confidence of the people was maintained, the long-term power of the political establishment was upheld, and the long-term economic health of the nation was preserved.

No one had plans for a long war, so the learning process was slow. Germany captured 40% of France's heavy industry in 1914, and the GDP in 1918 was 24% smaller than in 1913; since a third went into the war effort, the civilian standard of living fell in half. But thousands of little factories opened up across France, hiring older men, women, youth, disabled veterans, and even some soldiers. Algerian and Vietnamese laborers were brought in. By standardizing on basic but effective models early on, the French produced enough artillery, tanks and airplanes to equip not only their own army but the United States as well. The network of small plants produced 200,000 75mm shells a day. The US provided much food, steel, coal and machine tools, and $3.6 billion in loans to finance it all; the British loaned another $3 billion. The British economy expanded 17% during the war, and over half of the island's GDP was directed to the war effort. London dawdled for a year before setting up a capable Ministry of Munitions under David Lloyd George, who later became Prime Minister. One answer to the submarine blockade was rationing of food and the conversion of millions of acres to growing basic foodstuffs.

Britain had to sell off its assets in the United States, and then borrow a billion dollars from banks and four billion from the US Treasury. They asked J. P. Morgan, Jr. to organized a syndicate of 2,200 banks to lend the money, and to supervise the purchase of large quantities of food, cotton, machinery and explosives. Surprisingly, Germany, with its large, efficient, prestigious civil service was not nearly as successful as its arch-rivals. Berlin failed to comprehend the necessity of maintaining a strong homefront economy. Industrial production fell 27%, and food production fell 36% as the army called up vitally needed workers and farmers. Looting machinery in occupied lands and forcing thousands of Belgians to work in German factories underscored German's evil reputation, and added employees who would rather sabotage than work hard. Steel production fell despite the acquisition of mills in Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Germany started the war with a strong economy, but every year it grew weaker and less capable of supplying both the soldiers and the civilians. Luckily for Germany, Russia was in even worse shape. The Czarist state was utterly unable to cope with the economic crisis brought on by the war; its blunders alienated the peasants and the workers who comprised most of the population, disillusioned the small middle class, and demoralized the army. The largest economic power on the globe was the United States. Economically it prospered during 1914-1917, with new sales to the Allies more than counterbalancing the loss of the markets in central Europe.


Firepower could be multiplied in three ways. First, get more of the same old thing. This was the basic strategy in 1914 when each power tried to field the largest number of soldiers possible, most of them armed with rifles. Second, an army could reequip its troops with faster or more devastating weapons. Third, the armies could use new tactics to make their weapons more accurate or more effective. Machine gun tactics were improved, and major advances came in artillery.


Mobility was an especially difficult challenge, because the transportation infrastructure built for peacetime was inadequate to handle the needs of warfare. Before the war the German General Staff had elaborately scheduled the entire national railroad system to permit the fastest possible concentration of troops on the front. German mobility suffered later in the war when they had inadequate numbers of trucks and horses (and not enough fodder). By 1917 one German army group with 140,000 troops consumed six or seven trainloads of artillery shells every day (and needed 26,000 horses to cart them to the front.) The Allies had a much better motor industry, and by 1918 had 100,000 trucks against 30,000 inferior German machines. The United States had inadequate shipping to move its soldiers and material to Europe; vast plans were made for hundreds of new ships, but they started arriving after the war had ended.

One of the two biggest surprises of the war was the submarine used to attack warships and merchant ships. For a while it threatened to isolate North America from the battle fronts. Airplanes were an even more spectacular innovation. However, they were used primarily in auxiliary roles like for reconnaissance and artillery spotting, and never posed the strategic threat that submarines did. Communications devices enhanced mobility, and each side made extensive use of radio at sea, and telephones and telegraphs on land--not to mention thousands of carrier pigeons.

Horse cavalry had long provided mobility on the battlefield; it could not be used on the Western Front because of its vulnerability to machine guns and artillery. The tank was invented during the war, and combined in one weapons system both firepower and mobility. Whatever the promise for the future, the tanks were so beset with mechanical breakdowns that their performance was disappointing. Mechanical innovation was not a prerequisite for innovations in maneuver. The Germans with their "stormtrooper" tactics in 1918 (see below) showed that well-armed, well-trained infantry could move very fast indeed, when it knew what to do and had strong artillery support. The Americans, with their doctrine of "open warfare" likewise emphasized the importance of keeping the infantry moving.


The second big surprise of the war, especially in the first three years, was the superiority of the defense. From late 1914 to early 1918, new defensive tactics completely stymied all offensive operations on the Western Front. The stunning discovery that the old offensive doctrine had failed caused a frantic search for a new doctrine to break the stalemate- -the nation that invented the correct doctrine would win the war. The first response was to follow the "lesson" that historians had extracted from Napoleon's campaigns: overwhelm the enemy with massive firepower. Since Britain and France outnumbered Germany on the Western Front by 3-2, they tried to use that advantage by throwing in hundreds of thousands of infantrymen against a few miles of front.


The basic defense tactic was the trench system, and it withstood all the attackers. Infantrymen simply hid in trenches, either crude hand-dug affairs or complex underground networks such as the Germans built into their Siegfried Line. Robert E. Lee had used trenches to protect his Confederates at Petersburg in 1864-65, but Europeans had paid no attention. The new device was baffling to traditional, aggressive doctrine--"This isn't war!" grumbled Britain's Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener. Dirt provided a simple yet effective defense against rifle and machine gun bullets, and a fair defense against artillery shells (better after steel helmet were invented.) The defenders were further protected by rolls of barbed wire, which slowed down attacking infantry long enough for them to be decimated. Defensive machine guns and short range artillery could throw so much destruction so quickly into a target area that advancing infantrymen in the open were massacred. If any attackers broke through, grenades, knives, and even hand-made clubs were used.

Machine guns killed perhaps 40% of the 7 million soldiers who died on all fronts, while artillery killed nearly 60%. Few were killed by rifle fire; even fewer by bayonet. The trenches were exceedingly unpleasant places--with mud, disease, rats, and decaying corpses all about, with shells exploding overhead and pockets of poison gas in the deepest portions. Infantry regiments were ordered to the trenches for a week at a time; the survivors were allowed to recuperate for the next week in rear positions. Bayonet charges at dawn were tried over and over again in 1914, 1915 and 1916--they destroyed virtually every battalion that went over the top, and finally the soldiers refused to do it anymore. Poison gas was an unexpected new weapon system, but within weeks defenders had gas masks that greatly reduced the danger. Gas was then put into artillery shells, and in the latter part of the war when barrages were heaviest about a third of the shells contained gas, and two-thirds high explosives or shrapnel. More subtle types of defenses were developed by both sides. At first it was a matter of honor not to yield a yard of ground to the enemy, so the main defensive line was forward. That line was highly vulnerable to concentrated artillery attacks, however. The German army had better NCOs and junior officers; its generals were intellectually more flexible about matters of defense. By 1915 they had a better trench system, and by 1917 they developed a superior doctrine based on defense in depth. Instead of massing as many troops as possible in the front lines, they used a loose, deep web of mutually supporting strong points. The advancing enemy was channeled by barbed wire into killing zones where well-sited machine gun nests, backed up by concentrated artillery, could kill large numbers. When the attack had exhausted itself, the Germans would launch devastating counterattacks. The Germans, used an elastic defense.


Large armies with great firepower fighting in close quarters for many months inevitably produced extremely high casualties. The Battle of the Marne, in September 1915, saw losses (dead, wounded, captured) of 50,000 on each side every day for five days. The infantrymen realized that sooner or later they would be wounded or killed. The dead were to be honored and their families given pensions. The wounded received prompt medical care from frontline medics, ambulance drivers, field hospitals, large main hospitals, and long-term care facilities. While there were few "modern" drugs available, the quantity and quality of the medical and nursing services were good on the Western Front. The result was that the morale of the healthy was maintained, while many of the wounded survived and returned to the front to fight again. Those with serious disabilities were discharged to civilian life and given a pension. Adolf Hitler, aged 25, volunteered for the Bavarian army in August 1914, and rose to the rank of corporal. He fought in 47 battles, won the Iron Cross for bravery. Wounded in the leg in 1916, he spent six months in a military hospital then returned to the front. Badly gassed in a British attack in October, 1918, he recuperated in another hospital for three agonizing months.

A baffling new medical problem was "shell shock" (called "combat fatigue" in World War II). Soldiers under heavy fire for many months began to crack emotionally; their symptoms varied widely: sleep disturbances, hairtrigger irritability, hysteria, and partial paralysis, amnesia. The soldier was a psychiatric casualty and had to be removed from the lines and treated promptly. The most effective treatment required long rest, hot food, and sedation; many recovered, and were sent back to their units.

Since the number of potential fighting men was limited to about one-tenth of the entire population (counting all men, women and children), it was possible that one belligerent or another would simply run out of men. The winner would not have to win battles--just apply a strategy of attrition. Germany could not try the strategy directly because it was outnumbered, but it did try a variation in 1916. Attrition would work whenever a country realized that continuing the war equalled national suicide, and France had long been highly sensitive to this danger. The Germany attacked Verdun from February to December 1916 not to capture anything of importance, but "to bleed the French white." Each side lost a third of a million men, and while France did not crack it told the British they would have to assume the burden of the war because there no longer were enough men to replace the losses.

By June 1917, Paris had mobilized 6,000,000 men from mainland France and its African possessions. Of these, 2,300,000 (38%) were gone--dead, prisoners, severely wounded. Of the remainder, 1,600,000 had noncombatant jobs, especially in logistics or in war munitions plants. Military hospitals held 400,000 wounded; 210,000 soldiers were fighting on the Greek front. That left only 1,400,000 men (23%) who actually comprised the French front-line troop strength on the Western Front. That summer widespread mutinies among the French infantry showed they were reluctant to continue war by attrition. A new commander, General Philippe Pétain, ended the mutinies by showing a genuine concern for the well-being of his troops. He provided better food, frequent leaves, a doctrine that stressed offensive roles for artillery but defensive roles for infantry, and the hope that the Americans would soon arrive and win the war. The mutinies ended, but France had lost its will to fight and never again would be a first-rate military power. When American troops did begin arriving at the 18 front in large numbers in 1918, their youth, vigor, robust health, eagerness, and energy made them appear like creatures from another planet to the haggard survivors in the trenches.

The Technological Fix

The early twentieth century was an era of amazing technological innovation--in the few years before the war broke out, the automobile had been invented, and the airplane and radio, and new chemicals. Germany, Britain and the United States were the leaders in industry, so it was natural that the second attempted solution to the stalemate on the Western Front was the technological search for enhanced firepower or mobility. For the first time in the history of warfare, scientific laboratories became military assets. Organized research bureaus brought together engineers, chemists, and technicians in frantic efforts to adapt the latest inventions to obtain an edge on the battlefield. The Germans, with a large, well-organized scientific community maintained parity with the larger, but slower Allied efforts.

The tank

For more information, see: tank (military).

The British (and French) in 1916 invented an ingenious combination of firepower and mobility, the tank. Powerful truck engines and caterpillar tracks permitted tanks to crunch along at 4-5 miles per hour through light mud, ride above gas pockets, plow through barbed wire, and bridge 6-foot trenches. Ordinary bullets bounced off their ten millimeter armor, and they could recover from a high explosive near-miss. Their machine guns made them into mobile pill boxes, while their 37mm guns gave a new dimension to the maneuverability of artillery. The biggest problems were frequent mechanical breakdown and failure to coordinate with infantry and artillery. An effective tactic was to maneuver tanks in a group, so their massed firepower could be mutually supporting, with infantry close behind to mop up enemy survivors. The German infantry was terrified of tanks-- they ignored their officers who said that new armor piercing bullets would stop them if fired from close up. The Germans, who were usually keen on new weapons, strangely neglected the powerful new engine of destruction. The Allies, however, failed to develop a doctrine that would enable the tanks to be massed in large formations and thereby overpower the Germans. As a result, tanks did not play a decisive role in the war.


The airplane exemplified mobility in three dimensions. Invented in the United States only a decade earlier, it became the glamor weapon of the war. Both sides used it extensively for photographic reconnaissance and for spotting artillery fire--and for shooting down enemy planes trying to perform identical missions. The daring pilots in their open cockpits seemed like knights of old as they soared and blasted away. Even his enemies admired Manfred Baron von Richthofen--the "Red Baron"--who downed 80 Allied planes before he was shot down in April, 1918. Americans had their own aces, like Eddie Rickenbacker, a racing car driver who counted 26 kills.[5] The airplane was not decisive at any time, but like the tank it combined mobility and firepower and became a dominant factor in World War Two. At sea, radio gave new maneuverability to warships and convoys. On land telephones and the telegraph were not weapons as such, but they multiplied the effectiveness of the command and control role of regimental and higher commanders. The U.S. Signal Corps strung 100,000 miles of wire across France to handle a peak load of 48,000 telegrams a day. The system proved essential in managing the enormous logistical movements supplying armies that comprised millions of soldiers.

Poison Gas

Imperial War Museum
1916 British machine gun team wearing gas masks.

John Singer Sargent Gallery
"Gassed" (1919) by American artist John Singer Sargent[6]

Poison gas was the most controversial new weapon of World War I-- indeed, next to nuclear weapons, among the most controversial weapons of the 20th century. In 1899, the Hague Convention of 1899[7] outlawed "asphyxiating or deleterious gases." Led by Nobel-prize winner Fritz Haber, German chemists ignored the prohibition and promised the German military that chlorine gas could break the stalemate in the trenches. Germany dominated the world's young chemical industry, including the ability to manufacture and store large quantities of chlorine. On the Western front, 3% of all casualties were attributed to gas; 1,200 Americans definitely died from it. Both sides mixed gas shells with high explosives. Seriously affected patients required elaborate nursing care and extended bed rest to avoid the danger of pneumonia, but over 90% eventually recovered. However, poison gas a debilitating psychological weapon. Soldiers hated the masks because of the claustrophobia, the difficulty in getting enough oxygen for strenuous movement, and the garbling of voices and commands. By 1918, the continuous use of masks was a major contributor to combat fatigue. Poison gas never won a battle, but by forcing soldiers to mask, it slowed down the tempo of operations, made coordination difficult, affected morale, and increased the vulnerability of soldiers to artillery and machine gun fire. Germany favored gas because it was on the defensive on the Western Front from late 1914 to early 1918, and its large, sophisticated chemical industry delivered a high-quality product.

Some historians feel that the true effects of gas have been exaggerated in post-war accounts; no battle was decided by the use of poison gas, and the number of actual casualties inflicted was a tiny fraction of the overall number.[8]

The first attack using poison gas came in 1915 at St. Julien during the Second Battle of Ypres on the night of 21-22 April. The Germans opened thousands of cylinders and waited for the wind to carry the emitted gas into the Allied lines. Two French divisions (the 45th Algerian and 78th Territorial) fled in panic. Astonished by the results the new weapon achieved, the Germans were unprepared to take advantage and advanced slowly into the four-mile gap in the line. The Canadian Division was hastily assembled and counter-attacked, restoring the front over the course of several days, at the cost of about half the division.

Within three days of the first poison gas attack in 1915, Allied doctors had developed a simple but adequate mask and shipped 200,000 to the front; air that was breathed through ordinary washing soda was safe. By 1916, the British soldiers carried an excellent rubber face mask with glass eyepieces and a tube connecting it to separate respirators. The new masks gave practically 100% protection--but only when they were worn. The Russians never obtained an adequate supply and suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties. Death came in a matter of days due to lack of oxygen caused by pulmonary edema--the lungs filled up with fluids and the victims drowned in their own secretions. One effective treatment was therapeutic phlebotomy: surgeons cut a vein and pumped out 20- 25 ounces of blood.

In response to the use of chlorine gas by the Germans, the Allies developed their own chemical weapons. Chemists invented 18 new gases that were more effective than chlorine, and also masks to neutralize them. Phosgene ("Green Cross", the Germans called it) like chlorine, attacked the lungs, only more quickly--without a mask a victim had one minute to live--but it evaporated in 30 minutes. Release by cylinders proved unwieldy and dangerous, so by 1916 belligerents on both sides turned to artillery shells, each of which could land a few pounds of liquefied poisons on targets far behind the trenches on posts that had been spotted by airplane. On the front lines, gas was a harassment but not a tactical factor. A huge amount of gas had to be released in a short period in order to be effective, yet the same amount of high explosive would do much more damage.

The Germans introduced mustard gas ("Yellow Cross") in July 1917. While not a killer, it caused severe blisters in the lungs and on exposed skin that could temporarily blind or incapacitate for weeks or months. Mustard gas (actually a liquid) evaporated very slowly, so elaborate decontamination routines were necessary to wash off humans, equipment and terrain. Late in the war, Berlin invented arsenic compounds ("Blue Cross", ) which, while not lethal, caused uncontrollable sneezing or nausea that forced victims to remove their masks, thus exposing them to lethal gases.


The reason none of the technological fixes worked was that artillery worked even better, and its heavy use became the main doctrine of how to fight the war. Between 1890 and 1914 the French had been the leaders in the dramatic improvements in artillery. New recoil absorbers meant that instead of lurching about after each firing, guns now returned to the same position, and did not have to be reaimed. Better powder and stronger steel barrels made for higher muzzle velocity and more accuracy, while new high explosives made the blast more lethal. By 1900 indirect fire control procedures had been developed so that the crew no longer had to see the target. Surveyors would map the location of the cannon and the target; range finders would indicate exact distance; preset fuzes would explode at the right moment; and observers on the ground or in airplanes would direct adjustments by telegraph. The first artillery system to incorporate all these advances was the French 75 (75mm caliber bore) invented in 1897. Light enough to be maneuvered on the field, powerful enough to blast apart an infantry platoon, and fast enough to hit the target time and again, it was the major French and American weapon of the war. Well trained crews could fire 10 rounds a minute, with a range of up to 10,000 yards. During the war both sides rapidly expanded their use of artillery, firing as many shells as the factories could produce. The best way to enhance the firepower of artillery was to make it more accurate. The British used sound and flash detectors to locate enemy artillery; both sides used airplanes as to see where their own shells were landing and to identify likely targets. The "creeping barrage" was invented to assist infantry charges. The idea was that infantry would advance on a fixed timetable just behind the moving zone of artillery fire. The hope was that enemy machine gunners would take cover, and then be overrun by infantry. (The timing requirement was so precise the technique seldom worked.) The Germans, as they began running short of shells, began to concentrate them on high value targets, like command and control posts. Americans were unfamiliar with the new developments, and they never mastered the knack of coordinating artillery and infantry. The artillery generals always believed that if only they hurled enough shells the enemy trenches sooner or later would have to collapse. In one battle the British used 4,000 guns to hurl 3,000 pound of shells per foot of front line. (The shells cost £22 each; they added up to about a billion dollars in 2008 dollars. The German trenches had deep underground bunkers with reinforced concrete roofs; they held. When the infantry did advance, it [9]was a slow process to move the artillery forward, and then it was highly vulnerable to counterfire. On the whole, artillery proved a more effective weapon for the defense than for the offense.

Canadian forces developed innovative counterbattery methods to locate and destroy enemy artillery.

Indirect Solutions

The third solution to the stalemate on the Western Front was indirect warfare. The British, always reluctant to waste their men in dreadful trenches, proposed roundabout attacks on the weaker Central Powers. They tried to smash Austria by bringing Italy into the war. That was a blunder; to save Italy after the disaster of Caporetto in October, 1917, Britain and France had to rush in eleven divisions (including some American units, one of which included Ernest Hemingway.) Then induced Greece and Romania to attack Austria, but that likewise was a failure.

Operations 1915

Western Front

Eastern Front

Timeline of Eastern Front


Turkey seemed weak, so in 1915, at the urging of Winston Churchill (then the First Lord of the Admiralty, or civilian head of the Royal Navy) the Royal Navy tried to force the narrows and shell Istanbul as a precursor to invasion of Turkey. Unable to pass the shore batteries guarding the narrows, it was decided to make an amphibious landing on the Gallipoli peninsula to seize the batteries and attack Istanbul by land, using troops from Australia, New Zealand, Britain and France. The Allied force was inexperienced at amphibious landings and lacked reliable intelligence and maps. A confused landing was made on the 25th April, 1915. The Turks (under the inspirational leadership of Mustapha Kemal, later known as Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey) held the heights and repelled the invasion. A savage battle between two front lines often only yards apart took place for nine months before the Allies withdrew their forces.

Second, the British, using their base in Kuwait, sent Indian troops to invade the Turkish province of Iraq. The invaders were surrounded at Kut, south of Baghdad, and forced to surrender after a long siege. Third, British forces from Egypt invaded Palestine, and sent agents like Lawrence of Arabia to incite Arabs to revolt against the Turkish rulers. (Britain promised them a homeland but also promised a homeland there for the Jews.) This third plan succeeded in defeating the Turks but led to a never-ending dispute over control of Palestine.


Peace efforts fail

Before entering the war in 1917, the United States tried repeatedly to arrange some sort of compromise peace, but Germany was unwilling. At a deeper level, the Germans were jealous of the magnificent world-wide British Empire. Germans considered themselves the world leader in many areas--science, technology, music, military arts--but suffered from an inferiority complex. As the war dragged on Berlin expanded its war aims to include permanent control over most of eastern Europe. When Russia collapsed in the winter of 1917-18, Germany's goals seemed within its grasp. As long as there was a chance of winning and making its gains permanent, Berlin refused to consider any sort of compromise peace. The Allies by 1916 might have accepted a compromise peace, but the demand for revenge was strong and Italy rejected all peace talk unless it was awarded the South Tyrol region of Austria. Therefore no compromise settlement was possible.[10]

Operations 1916

Western Front

General Von Falkenhayn's attempt to totally defeat the Russians had failed as had the allied diversionary tactic at the Dardanelles. As a result, both sides attempted once again to make a breakthrough on the Western Front, leading to the epic battles of Verdun and the Somme.

The Battle of Verdun

Falkenhayn believed that the real enemy of Germany was Britain and if her greatest ally in the war were defeated - France - then Britain would seek peace. He therefore set in motion Operation Gericht.

In order to entice the French into a bloodletting of such such proportions he needed to attack a symbol of French pride. The fortress of Verdun was therefore chosen. It occupied a key position on the French lines and the French public believed it and its subsidiaries - Vaux, Douamont and Souville - were essential to the defence of their homeland. It was for this reason (both practical and for morale purposes) that the French under General Petain defended it so doggedly.

The Germans began the attack on February 21, 1916 with a huge bombardment that allowed the Germans to seize Fort Douamont; it took 100,000 French lives to recapture it. The morale of the French army was maintained by constant reinforcements. At one stage or another, nearly every French soldier served time at Verdun. A new road was built to bring in 4,000 tons of supplies and 20,000 men daily.

Due to Petain's organizational skills and marshalling of the defences, the Germans were unable to make a significant breakthrough and the battle turned into one of steady and devastating attrition. The Brusilov offensive in the east and the Battle of the Somme in July meant the Germans had to transfer troops, thus ending their hopes of success at Verdun. Nonetheless, the battle dragged on until November, 1916. Falkenhayn was dismissed and replaced by Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Joffre was also replaced by Nivelle who was credited with finally repulsing the Germans. Combined casualties were estimated at around 700,000 men, making it one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

Battle of the Somme

General Sir Douglas Haig felt that the British could defeat the Germans on the Somme, yet the terrain was better suited to defence. The Germans controlled the crest of hills, and the British had the difficult task of fighting their way upwards. After days of bombardment the British went over the top of the trenches at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916. Many of them were the new Kitchener recruits who received only a quick, relatively brief training. As they struggled across the cratered no man's land weighed down with sixty six pounds of equipment, the German machine guns tore into them, killing thousands upon thousands of young men. The 40,000 injured and/or wounded and 20,000 dead was the greatest loss suffered in a single day by the British army. The Ulster Volunteers were wiped out at Thiepval Wood on the Somme on July 1st.

For four and a half months the battle ground on. No breakthrough was made despite the presence of a large contingent of French troops under General Ferdinand Foch. British casualties amounted to 415,000, French to 195,000 and Germans to about 450,000. Although the battle wore down the German army, as the retreat behind the Hindenburg line in February 1917 shows, it had great consequences in Britain.

Many of the men were Irish, particularly hailing from Ulster. Unionists particularly remember the battle of the Somme with annual marches on July 1st and it forms a key part of their cultural identity. A.J.P. Taylor wrote:

Idealism perished on the Somme. The enthusiastic volunteers were enthusiastic no longer. They had lost faith in their cause, in their leaders, in everything except loyalty to their fighting comrades. The war ceased to have a purpose.[11]

Eastern Front



Operations 1917

American entry

For more information, see: World War I, American entry.

Western Front

Eastern Front

The Czarist system was too slow to mobilize Russia's resources, and too inflexible to bring forth able officers and civilian managers. The rank and file of the Russian army responded to multiple defeats by turning against the Czar and refusing to fight any longer. A liberal revolution toppled the Czar in February 1917; a coup by Lenin brought the Bolsheviks to power that fall. Lenin pulled Russia out of the war for good in December 1917, and through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk yielded Germany domination over most of eastern Europe. Berlin had at last achieved its war goals in the East--but the war in the West was still raging and peace with the Allies had become impossible.



Operations 1918

Hindenburg, the Kaiser and Ludendorff examine aerial photographs of enemy positions, 1918

Western Front



The Peace Settlement

After the war, Palestine, Iraq and Kuwait were protectorates of Britain, while Syria and Lebanon were seized by the French. Abd al-Aziz Saud conquered several shiekdoms and created Saudi Arabia in 1926, which is still totally controlled by his descendants. Syria and Iraq became independent in the 1930s.


  1. Charles à Court Repington, The First World War, 1914–1918, Constable, London, 1920
  2. Italy was originally a Central Power, but remained neutral in 1914 and joined the Allies in 1915.
  3. R.Ernest Dupuy and Trevor Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History (1985) 990.
  4. Nicoletta F. Gullace, "Sexual Violence And Family Honor: British Propaganda And International Law During The First World War," American Historical Review 1997 102(3): 714-747, online at JSTOR. On atrocities see also
  5. He survived to become the founder of Eastern Airlines.
  6. For commentary on the painting, see Geoff Dyer on 'Gassed' at [1]
  7. See Wikipedia's article Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.
  8. Holmes, Richard Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front
  9. Leeds 99 re 3rd Ypres
  10. Stevenson 142
  11. Edward Fynes, European History, 1870-1966 (1999) p. 130