<p>Stretcher bearers carry a wounded soldier during the Battle of the Somme in <a href="/narrative/28/en">World War I</a>. France, September 1916. IWM (Q 1332)</p>

World War I

World War I (1914–18) marked the first great international conflict of the twentieth century. The trauma of the war would profoundly shape the attitudes and actions of both leaders and ordinary people during the Holocaust. The impact of the conflict and its divisive peace would echo in the decades to come, giving rise to a second world war and genocide committed under its cover.

Key Facts

  • 1

    World War I represented one of the most destructive wars in modern history. Nearly ten million soldiers died as a result of the hostilities. This far exceeded military deaths in all the wars of the previous one hundred years combined.

  • 2

    A series of treaties were imposed upon the defeated nations (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey). They held these powers, particularly Germany, responsible for starting the war and liable for massive material damages.

  • 3

    The Versailles Treaty of 1919 forced Germany to cede 13 percent of its territory and limit its armed forces. Many citizens linked the treaty to the humiliation of national defeat.

Outbreak of World War I

World War I marked the first great international conflict of the twentieth century. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown, and his wife, the Archduchess Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, sparked the hostilities. Fighting began in August 1914, and continued on several fronts for the next four years.

The Entente and Central Powers 

The opposing sides in World War I are known as the Entente Powers and the Central Powers.

Entente Powers:

  • Britain
  • France
  • Serbia
  • Imperial Russia
  • Joined later by Italy, Greece, Portugal, Romania, and the United States

Central Powers:

  • Germany
  • Austria-Hungary
  • Joined later by Ottoman Turkey and Bulgaria

The Scope of Fighting

Trench warfare on the western front during World War IInitially there was enthusiasm on all sides for a quick and decisive victory. This enthusiasm faded as the war bogged down. It became a stalemate of costly battles and trench warfare, particularly on the war's western front.

The system of trenches and fortifications in the west extended at its longest some 475 miles. It spread roughly from the North Sea to the Swiss border. For most North American and western European combatants, their experience of the war was trench warfare.

On the other hand, the vast expanse of the eastern front prevented large-scale trench warfare. The scale of the conflict was still equal to that on the western front. Heavy fighting also occurred in Northern Italy, in the Balkans, and in Ottoman Turkey. Combat also took place at sea and, for the first time, in the air.

Impact of US Entry into the War and the Russian Revolution

A decisive change in the hostilities came in April 1917. Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare drove the United States from isolationism into the heart of the conflict. Fresh troops and materiel from the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) under the leadership of General John J. Pershing, combined with an ever-tightening blockade of German ports, helped to shift the balance of the war effort eventually to the advantage of the Entente Powers.

This newly gained edge for Entente forces was initially counter-balanced by events taking place in the war's eastern theater.  Since early 1917, Russia, one of the Entente's principal powers, had been in a state of turmoil. Two revolutions took place in 1917. The first overthrew the imperial govenment. The second brought the Bolsheviks to power. These events are referred to collectively as the Russian Revolution

The immediate effect of the Russian Revolution on the European stage was a brutal and enduring civil war in Russian lands (1917–1922) and the decision of the new Bolshevik leadership to make a separate peace with the Kaiser's Germany. When negotiations foundered over German demands, the German army launched an all-out offensive on the eastern front, resulting in a peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk on March 6, 1918.

Central Powers Surrender 

German forces had some successes. They knocked Bolshevik Russia out of the war in late winter 1918 and reached the gates of Paris during the summer. Despite these German successes, the Entente armies repulsed the German army at the Marne River. They steadily advanced against German lines on the western front in the summer and autumn months of 1918 (known as the "Hundred Days' Offensive").

The Central Powers began to surrender, beginning with Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, in September and October, respectively. On November 3, Austro-Hungarian forces signed a truce near Padua, Italy. In Germany, the mutiny of navy sailors in Kiel touched off a widespread revolt in German coastal cities, and in the major municipal areas of Hannover, Frankfurt on Main, and Munich. 1

Armistice 

On November 9, 1918, in the midst of widespread unrest and deserted by the commanders of the German army, Emperor (Kaiser) William II abdicated the German throne. On the same day, SPD delegate Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed Germany a republic, with an interim government led by Friedrich Ebert. Two days later, German representatives, led by Catholic Center Party (Zentrum) representative Matthias Erzberger, met with a delegation of the victorious Entente powers under French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the commanding general of the Entente forces, in a railcar in Compiègne Forest and accepted armistice terms.

At 11:00 a.m. on November 11 (11/11), 1918, fighting on the western front ceased. The "Great War," as its contemporaries called it, was over. But the conflict's far-reaching impact upon international, political, economic, and social spheres would resonate for decades to come.

Military Losses

World War I represented one of the most destructive wars in modern history.

Nearly ten million soldiers died as a result of hostilities, a figure which far exceeded the military deaths in all the wars of the previous one hundred years combined. Although accurate casualty statistics are difficult to ascertain, an estimated 21 million men were wounded in combat.

The enormous losses on all sides of the conflict resulted in part from the introduction of new weapons, like the machine gun and gas warfare. Military leaders also failed to adjust their tactics to the increasingly mechanized nature of warfare. A policy of attrition, particularly on the western front, cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

July 1, 1916,  saw the heaviest loss of life in a single day. On this day, the British Army on the Somme alone suffered over 57,000 casualties.

Germany and Russia incurred the highest number of military deaths: an estimated 1,773,700 and 1,700,000, respectively. France lost sixteen percent of its mobilized forces, the highest mortality rate relative to troops deployed.

Civilian Losses

No official agencies kept careful accounting of civilian losses during the war years, but scholars assert that as many as 13,000,000 non-combatants died as a direct or indirect result of hostilities. Mortality for both military and civilian populations spiked at war's end with the outbreak of the "Spanish Flu," the deadliest influenza epidemic in history.

Millions of people were uprooted or displaced from their homes in Europe and Asia Minor as a result of the conflict. Property and industry losses were catastrophic, especially in France and Belgium, where fighting had been the heaviest.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • Some historians write that World War I (the Great War) was avoidable. What institutions and ideas developed after 1919 to prevent a recurrence? Why did they fail by 1939?
  • How did World War I change the face of modern warfare? Did the warring parties violate or ignore understandings about tactics and weapons? Were any international agreements violated or ignored?
  • International agreements have a mixed record of success in terms of limiting or preventing dangerous behavior by individual nations. How can this be improved or changed?