Chapter 25 - World War I


ON JULY 1, 1916, British and French infantry forces attacked German defensive lines along a 25-mile front near the Somme River in France. Each soldier carried almost 70 pounds of equipment, making it “impossible to move much quicker than a slow walk.” German machine guns soon opened fire: “We were able to see our comrades move forward in an attempt to cross No-Man’s Land, only to be mown down like meadow grass,” recalled one British soldier. “I felt sick at the sight of this carnage and remember weeping.” In one day, more than 21,000 British soldiers died. After six months of fighting, the British had advanced 5 miles; one million British, French, and German soldiers had been killed or wounded.

Philip Gibbs, an English war correspondent, described what he saw in the German trenches that the British forces overran: “Victory! … Some of the German dead were young boys, too young to be killed for old men’s crimes, and others might have been old or young. One could not tell because they had no faces, and were just masses of raw flesh in rags of uniforms. Legs and arms lay separate without any bodies thereabout.”

World War I (1914-1918) was the defining event of the twentieth century. It devastated the prewar economic, social, and political order of Europe, and its uncertain outcome served to prepare the way for an even more destructive war. Overwhelmed by the size of its battles, the number of its casualties, and the extent of its impact on all facets of European life, contemporaries referred to it simply as the Great War.

The Great War was all the more disturbing to Europeans because it came after a period that many believed to have been an age of progress. There had been international crises before 1914, but somehow Europeans had managed to avoid serious and prolonged military confrontations. When smaller European states had gone to war, as in the Balkans in 1912 and 1913, the great European powers had shown the ability to keep the conflict localized. Material prosperity and a fervid belief in scientific and technological progress had convinced many people that Europe stood on the verge of creating the utopia that humans had dreamed of for centuries. The historian Arnold Toynbee expressed what the pre-World War I era had meant to his generation:

[It was expected] that life throughout the World would become more rational, more humane, and more democratic and that, slowly, but surely, political democracy would produce greater social justice. We had also expected that the progress of science and technology would make mankind richer, and that this increasing wealth would gradually spread from a minority to a majority. We had expected that all this would happen peacefully. In fact we thought that mankind’s course was set for an earthly paradise.

After 1918, it was no longer possible to maintain naïve illusions about the progress of Western civilization. As World War I was followed by the destructiveness of World War II and the mass murder machines of totalitarian regimes, it became all too apparent that instead of a utopia, European civilization had become a nightmare. The Great War resulted not only in great loss of life and property but also in the annihilation of one of the basic intellectual precepts on which Western civilization had seemed to have been founded - the belief in progress. A sense of hopelessness and despair soon replaced blind faith in progress. World War I and the revolutions it spawned can properly be seen as the first stage in the crisis of the twentieth century.

The Road to World War I

FOCUS QUESTIONS: What were the long-range and immediate causes of World War I?

On June 28, 1914, the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, was assassinated in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo (sar-uh-YAY-voh). Although this event precipitated the confrontation between Austria and Serbia that led to World War I, war was not inevitable. Previous assassinations of European leaders had not led to war, and European statesmen had managed to localize earlier conflicts. Although the decisions that European statesmen made during this crisis were crucial in leading to war, certain long-range underlying forces were also propelling Europeans toward armed conflict.


In the first half of the nineteenth century, liberals had maintained that the organization of European states along national lines would lead to a peaceful Europe based on a sense of international fraternity. They had been very wrong. The system of nation-states that had emerged in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century led not to cooperation but to competition. Rivalries over colonial and commercial interests intensified during an era of frenzied imperialist expansion, and the division of Europe’s great powers into two loose alliances (Germany, Austria, and Italy in one, and France, Great Britain, and Russia in the other) only added to the tensions (see Map 25.1). The series of crises that tested these alliances in the early years of the new century had taught European states a dangerous lesson. Governments that had exercised restraint in order to avoid war wound up being publicly humiliated, whereas those that went to the brink of war to maintain their national interests had often been praised for having preserved national honor. In either case, by 1914, the major European states had come to believe that their allies were important and that their security depended on supporting those allies, even when they took foolish risks.

Diplomacy based on brinkmanship was especially frightening in view of the nature of the European state system. Each nation-state regarded itself as sovereign, subject to no higher interest or authority. Each state was motivated by its own self-interest and success. As Emperor William II of Germany remarked, “In questions of honor and vital interests, you don’t consult others.” Such attitudes made war an ever-present possibility, particularly since most statesmen considered war an acceptable way to preserve the power of their national states. And each state had its circles of political and military leaders who thought that war was inevitable and would provide an opportunity to achieve their goals. In Germany, there were those who advocated the creation of a German empire by acquiring parts of Russia and possibly even parts of Belgium and France. France wished to regain control of Alsace-Lorraine, which had been seized by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War. Austria-Hungary sought to prevent Serbia from creating a large Serbian state at the expense of its own multinational empire. Britain wanted to preserve its world empire, and Russia felt compelled to maintain its great power status by serving as the protector of its fellow Slavic peoples in the Balkans.

Internal Dissent

The growth of nationalism in the nineteenth century had yet another serious consequence. Not all ethnic groups had achieved the goal of nationhood. Slavic minorities in the Balkans and the Austrian Empire, for example, still dreamed of creating their own national states. So did the Irish in the British Empire and the Poles in the Russian Empire.

National aspirations, however, were not the only source of internal strife at the beginning of the twentieth century. Socialist labor movements had grown more powerful and were increasingly inclined to use strikes, even violent ones, to achieve their goals. Some conservative leaders, alarmed at the increase in labor strife and class division, even feared that European nations were on the verge of revolution. Did these statesmen opt for war in 1914 because they believed that “prosecuting an active foreign policy,” as one leader expressed it, would smother “internal troubles”? Some historians have argued that the desire to suppress internal disorder may have encouraged some leaders to take the plunge into war in 1914.


The growth of large mass armies after 1900 not only heightened the existing tensions in Europe but made it inevitable that if war did come, it would be highly destructive. conscription had been established as a regular practice in most Western countries before 1914 (the United States and Britain were major exceptions). European military machines had doubled in size between 1890 and 1914. With its 1.3 million men, the Russian army was the largest, but the French and Germans were not far behind with 900,000 each. The British, Italian, and Austrian armies numbered between 250,000 and 500,000 soldiers. Most European land armies depended on peasants, since many young, urban working-class males were unable to pass the physical examinations required for military service.

Militarism, however, involved more than just large armies. As armies grew, so did the influence of military leaders, who drew up vast and complex plans for quickly mobilizing millions of men and enormous quantities of supplies in the event of war. Fearful that changes in these plans would create chaos in the armed forces, military leaders insisted that their plans could not be altered. In the crises during the summer of 1914, the generals’ lack of flexibility forced European political leaders to make decisions for military instead of political reasons.

The Outbreak of War: The Summer of 1914

Militarism, nationalism, and the desire to stifle internal dissent may all have played a role in the coming of World War I, but the decisions made by European leaders in the summer of 1914 directly precipitated the conflict. It was another crisis in the Balkans that forced this predicament on European statesmen.

ANOTHER CRISIS IN THE BALKANS As we have seen, states in southeastern Europe had struggled to free themselves from Ottoman rule in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But the rivalry between Austria-Hungary and Russia for domination of these new states created serious tensions in the region. The crises between 1908 and 1913 had only intensified the antagonisms (see Chapter 24).

By 1914, Serbia, supported by Russia, was determined to create a large, independent Slavic state in the Balkans, but Austria, which had its own Slavic minorities to contend with, was equally set on preventing that possibility. Many Europeans perceived the inherent dangers in this combination of Serbian ambition bolstered by Russian opposition to Austria and Austria’s conviction that Serbia’s success would mean the end of its empire. The British ambassador to Vienna wrote in 1913:

Serbia will some day set Europe by the ears, and bring about a universal war on the Continent.... I cannot tell you how exasperated people are getting here at the continual worry which that little country causes to Austria under encouragement from Russia .... It will be lucky if Europe succeeds in avoiding war as a result of the present crisis. The next time a Serbian crisis arises, ... I feel sure that Austria-Hungary will refuse to admit of any Russian interference in the dispute and that she will proceed to settle her differences with her little neighbor by herself.

It was against this backdrop of mutual distrust and hatred between Austria-Hungary and Russia, on the one hand, and Austria-Hungary and Serbia, on the other, that the events of the summer of 1914 were played out.

THE ASSASSINATION OF FRANCIS FERDINAND: A “BLANK CHECK”?A Bosnian activist who worked for the Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist organization dedicated to the creation of a pan-Slavic kingdom, carried out the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife, Sophia, on June 28 , 1914. Although the Austrian government did not know whether the Serbian government had been directly involved in the archduke’s assassination, it saw an opportunity to “render Serbia impotent once and for all by a display of force,” as the Austrian foreign minister put it. Fearful of Russian intervention on Serbia’s behalf, Austrian leaders sought the backing of their German allies. Emperor William II and his chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (TAY-oh-bahlt fun BET-mun-HOHL-vek), responded with the infamous “blank check,” their assurance that Austria-Hungary could rely on Germany’s “full support,” even if “matters went to the length of a war between Austria-Hungary and Russia.” Much historical debate has focused on this “blank check” of July 5 extended to the Austrians. Did the Germans realize that an Austrian-Serbian war could lead to a wider war? If so, did they actually want one? Historians are still divided on the answers to these questions.

Led by Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf (FRAHNTS KON-raht fun HEHT-sen-dorf), chief of the Austro-Hungarian General Staff, who thought war with Serbia was both necessary and inevitable, Austrian leaders had already decided by July 14 to send Serbia an ultimatum that threatened war. But the Austrians decided to wait until the end of the official French state visit to Russia before issuing the ultimatum. On July 23 , the day the French president left Russia, Austrian leaders issued their ultimatum to Serbia. Their demands were so extreme that Serbia had little choice but to reject some of them in order to preserve its sovereignty. Austria then declared war on Serbia on July 28. Although Austria had hoped to keep the war limited to Serbia and Austria in order to ensure its success in the Balkans, these hopes soon vanished.

DECLARATIONS OF WAR Still smarting from its humiliation in the Bosnian crisis of 1908, Russia was determined to support Serbia. On July 28, Tsar Nicholas II ordered partial mobilization of the Russian army against Austria. At this point, the rigidity of the military war plans played havoc with diplomatic and political decisions. The Russian General Staff informed the tsar that their mobilization plans were based on a war against both Germany and Austria simultaneously. They could not execute partial mobilization without creating chaos in the army. Consequently, the Russian government ordered full mobilization of the Russian army on July 29, knowing that the Germans would consider this an act of war against them (see the box on p. 764). Germany responded to Russian mobilization with its own ultimatum that the Russians must halt their mobilization within twelve hours. When the Russians ignored it, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1.

German war plans then determined whether France would become involved in the war. Under General Alfred von Schlieffen (AHL-fret fun SHLEE-fun), chief of staff from 1891 to 1905, the German General staff had devised a military plan based on the assumption of a two-front war with France and Russia, since the two powers had formed a military alliance in 1894. The Schlieffen Plan called for a minimal troop deployment against Russia while most of the German army would make a rapid invasion of western France by way of neutral Belgium. After the planned quick defeat of the French, the German army expected to redeploy to the east against Russia. Under the Schlieffen Plan, Germany could not mobilize its troops solely against Russia and therefore declared war on France on August 3 after issuing an ultimatum to Belgium on August 2 demanding the right of German troops to pass through Belgian territory.

On August 4, Great Britain declared war on Germany, officially over this violation of Belgian neutrality but in fact over the British desire to maintain world power. As one British diplomat argued, if Germany and Austria were to win the war, “what would be the position of a friendless England?” By August 4, all the great powers of Europe were at war. Through all the maneuvering of the last few days before the war, one fact stands out - all the great powers seemed willing to risk war. They were not disappointed.

Next Reading: 25-2 The War: 1914-1917