Causes of the First World War Franco-Prussian War

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SCPA: US History: World War I Winter Packet

Causes of the First World War

Franco-Prussian War

     Beginning in July 1870, France and Germany engaged in a nine month conflict known as the Franco-Prussian War. German states finished their push to unification which helped Germany to emerge victorious from the conflict. As part of the victory, Germany acquired the region of Alsace-Lorraine on the border of France and Germany and imposed a harsh settlement on France. The territory of Alsace-Lorraine had been the possession of both the Germans and French throughout history, and its’ possession was always a source of tension for the two countries. This settlement was a source of continuous tension between France and Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s.


     Militarism is a political belief that a country should maintain a strong military for national interests. In the years before World War I, many countries in Europe embraced this policy. As a result, there was a significant increase in military spending because of the desire to expand empires or protect overseas colonies.


     Another source of tension between European countries was imperialism. An increased desire for international power, natural resources, and friendly markets led to greater rivalries among European nations. Germany, Russia, France, and Great Britain were nations that attempted to consolidate power by gaining the largest empire.


     A complicated alliance system was in place in the years before World War I. In the late 1800s, the Triple Alliance united Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Reacting with fear to the growth of Germany's power and influence through the Triple Alliance, France and Russia formed their own alliance. They were later joined by Great Britain, and the alliance between these three nations was known as the Triple Entente.

The countries of both the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente agreed to the mutual defense of all the member nations of their respective alliances. They agreed that an act of war against one nation would be considered an act of war against the whole alliance. Though the system was meant to deter aggression, it actually resulted in bringing more countries into the war once the hostilities began. This became known as entangling alliances. If one country declared war on another country, it would lead to all of the countries getting involved. Many historians compare Europe at this time to a powder keg, just on spark could make it explode.

Nationalism (Assignment #1)

     The feelings of intense patriotism, known as nationalism, also impacted Europe in the pre-war years. The idea of nationalism was especially popular in the Balkans, which was surrounded by three large but declining empires: Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

     The Balkan League was established as a way to advance the independence movements of Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Serbia. After winning their independence from the Ottoman Empire, Serbians and others supported the creation of a new country for the South Slavs in the region. Other nations, such as Great Britain, France, and Germany tried to preserve a balance of power, ensuring that tensions in the Balkans continued, leading to the assertion that the Balkans was the "powder keg of Europe."

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

     In 1914, a Serbian militant group called the Black Hand conspired to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, the archduke of Austria-Hungary, when he visited Sarajevo. Sarajevo was the capital of the province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was controlled by Austro-Hungarian Empire. Black Hand members were extreme nationalists who believed that all areas with a significant Slavic population, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, should be united as Yugoslavia. Franz Ferdinand and his wife were killed on June 28, 1914. The assassination of the archduke led Austria to declare war on Serbia and is believed by historians to be the event that triggered the outbreak of World War I.gavrilo princip cropped.jpg

Their assassin was Gavrilo Princip, a 19 year old Bosnian-Serb. During his trial for the assassination of the Archduke and his wife Princip said, “"I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria." Gavrilo was found guilty, but was not executed because he was under 20 years, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. He died of TB in 1918.

Outbreak of War (Assignment #2)

     Following the assassination of the archduke, the first declaration of war was made by Austria-Hungary on Serbia, an ally of Russia, on July 28, 1914. This declaration was quickly followed by Russian threats against Austria-Hungary and the subsequent German declaration of war against Russia and France.

     Once the fighting in World War I began, the Allied Powers, centered on the pre-war Triple Entente, included Great Britain, Serbia, France, and the Russian Empire. Other nations that joined the Allied Powers included Belgium, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania, Portugal, and the United States. Though Italy had formerly been involved in the Triple Alliance, it declared neutrality in 1914 and eventually joined the Allied Powers in May of 1915. On the opposite side of the conflict were the Central Powers, based on the Triple Alliance. The Central Powers included Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria.


     In line with their usual policy of isolationism, the United States declared neutrality immediately following the outbreak of war in Europe. Isolationism refers to a foreign policy that is both militarily non-interventionist and economically protectionist. The United States attempted to follow an isolationist policy throughout a greater part of its history, especially when dealing with European wars. This policy was difficult to maintain during World War I, however, because of the close relationship between the United States and Great Britain and also because of the growing anti-German sentiment of people in the U.S. throughout the war.

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (Assignment #3)

     In February of 1915, Germany announced that it would be pursuing a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in retaliation to the blockade of Germany by the British Royal Navy. The Germans announced that they would attack any ship found within the war zone. On May 7, a German U-boat attacked the British passenger ship Lusitania. Over 1,000 civilians were killed, including over 100 Americans. Outrage swept through the United States, and Germany temporarily agreed not to attack any more passenger ships.

map of the german war zone

On March 24, 1916 the torpedoing of a French cross-channel passenger steamer, the Sussex, by a German submarine, left 80 casualties, including two Americans wounded. The attack, which became known as the Sussex Incident, prompted a U.S. threat to sever diplomatic relations. The German government responded with the so-called Sussex Pledge (May 4, 1916), agreeing to give adequate warning before sinking merchant and passenger ships and to provide for the safety of passengers and crew. The pledge was upheld until February 1917, when unrestricted submarine warfare was resumed.


     On January 31, 1917, following years of stalemate in which neither the Allied nor the Central Powers could make significant gains, Germany announced that it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare. In doing so, the Germans would attempt to destroy the British Navy and control the shipping lanes of the Atlantic Ocean in order to stop U.S. aid from reaching Europe. This announcement shocked the world and resulted in a U.S. threat against Germany and moved the country closer to entering into the war. Despite the tragedy of the Lusitania, and the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, the US was still unwilling to enter the war.

Zimmermann Telegram (Assignment #4)

     The final straw for the U.S. came in February of 1917. British intelligence intercepted a telegram from German diplomat Arthur Zimmermann to officials in Mexico proposing a Mexican attack on the United States. The British waited three weeks before turning the telegram over to the Americans because they did not want to admit to spying on their communications, but ultimately decided that this telegram would push the US into the war on the side of the Allies. The telegram promised that in exchange for Mexican aid, the Germans promised the return of territory lost to Mexico in conflicts with the United States. The telegram was sent to President Woodrow Wilson and published throughout the U.S. on March 1, 1917.

Declaration of War

      Due to the events above, public opinion slowly turned against Germany. On April 2, 1917, Woodrow Wilson called a special session of Congress in order to ask for a declaration of war against Germany. During his speech, Wilson called the war a "war against mankind," making a specific reference to the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, and asked Congress to declare war against Germany, saying, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” The United States declared war on April 6, 1917. American involvement broke the stalemate that had marked the early years of the war. Following 1917, the tides turned in favor of the Allies, and they were ultimately victorious.

U.S. Troops in World War I

      Upon joining the war, the United States was given the status of an "associated power" rather than being considered a formal part of the Allied Powers. In May of 1917, U.S. General John J. Pershing was placed in command of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). The AEF fought in France alongside British and French soldiers throughout the last year of the war.


  In June of 1918, American troops played a key role in helping stop the German thrust towards Paris. The Battle of Argonne Forest began in September, and fighting continued until the armistice on November 11, 1918. During this offensive, General Pershing commanded more than one million American and French combatants. Allied forces were able to recover more than two hundred square miles of French territory from the German army. The Battle of Argonne Forest was among the last military engagements of World War I and was the largest battle that involved U.S. of the front lines of western europe

New Technologies (Assignment #5)

     As a result of increasing industrialism during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many new technologies were available for use during World War I. These technologies included poison gas, rapid-fire machine guns, advances in artillery technology, tanks, airplanes, and submarines.

Trench warfare was a major part of World War I. Trench warfare was the main cause of the stalemate that existed on the Western Front for most of the war. The entrenched positions that caused the stalemate, were a result of the development of highly effective new weapons such as poison gas (which could blind, choke, or burn its victims), rapid-fire machine guns and artillery with highly explosive shells. These weapons made traditional infantry rushed very dangerous, resulting in troops from the trenches that were ordered to go "over the top" in a rush on the enemy lines, to be massacred by enemy fire. Since infantry rushed were ineffective, neither side could break through enemy lines and end the stalemate, meaning that each side had to attempt to create new technology or strategies.

The End of the War

The United States declared war on Germany on April 6th 1917. American troops joined the French and British in the summer of 1918. They were fresh and not war-weary and were invaluable in defeating the Germans.

The allied victory in November 1918 was not solely due to American involvement. Rapid advancements in weapon technology, helped by American funding, meant that by 1918 tanks and planes were commonplace.

The German commander Erich Ludendorff was a brilliant military commander and had won decisive victories over Russia in 1917 that led to the Russian withdrawal from the war.

In 1918 he announced that if Germany was to win the war then the allies had to be defeated on the Western Front before the arrival of American troops. Although his offensive was initially successful the allies held ground and eventually pushed the Germans back.
By 1918 there were strikes and demonstrations in Berlin and other cities protesting about the effects of the war on the population. The British naval blockade of German ports meant that thousands of people were starving. Socialists were waiting for the chance to seize Germany as they had in Russia.
In October 1918 Ludendorff resigned and the German navy mutinied. The end was near. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated on November 9th 1918.
On 11th November the leaders of both sides held a meeting in Ferdinand Foch's railway carriage headquarters at Compiegne.
The Armistice (agreement to stop fighting) was signed at 6am and came into force five hours later. So on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month World War I came to an end.

The Big Four

The Big Four refers to the top Allied leaders who met at the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919 following the end of World War I(1914–18). The Big Four are also known as the Council of Four. It was composed of Woodrow Wilson of the United States, David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, and Georges Clemenceau of France.

While the Allies at the Paris Peace Conference made up more than twenty nations, the Big Four entered Versailles and were the decision makers. However, Orlando pulled out of the conference after his demands weren't met, leaving the Big Three (Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau) as the only remaining decision makers at the conference. These heads of government were the leading architects of the Treaty of Versailles which was signed by Germany. Separate peace treaties were signed with Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire.

The Fourteen Points (Assignment #6)

The Fourteen Points was a speech given by President Woodrow Wilson to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918. In this speech, Wilson outlined his vision of world peace in the years following the war. The Fourteen Points included the following:

  • fair and open peace treaties, which would do away with secret dealings between nations

  • freedom and safety upon the seas outside territorial waters

  • the removal of barriers to trade between countries

  • reduction of armaments of all world nations

  • end of world colonialism and the right of all people to choose their own governments (This idea is widely known as self-determination)

  • the establishment of an association of nations that agree to maintaining world peace (The idea that created the League of Nations)

In general, Wilson believed in a fair peace deal for all the nations fighting in the war, and he did not support the idea of harshly penalizing the nations who had started the war. Not all world leaders agreed with Wilson's vision of the future. In particular, French leaders wanted to punish Germany, since the French considered Germany solely to blame for the outbreak of war in 1914. Though many aspects of Wilson's Fourteen Points would later be the basis for the treaty that ended the war, world leaders could not agree to be lenient in their treatment of Germany in the post-war years.

The Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles formally ended World War I and was based on the principles set forth in Wilson's Fourteen Points. The treaty included many territorial clauses and areas that were formerly considered part of large empires were given the chance to form their own sovereign states. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Turkey were all created following the war. Because of this, the German Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Ottoman Empire ceased to exist.

The treaty also placed the responsibility for World War I entirely on Germany (Article 231 aka War Guilt Clause) and included the following punishments:

  • Germany was required to pay reparations of upwards of $11 billion to the Allied countries.

  • The Rhineland, or the area on either side of the Rhine River in western Germany, would be a demilitarized zone.

  • The German military was to be stripped to no more than 100,000 troops, and conscription was abolished.

  • Germany was prohibited from manufacturing items such as tanks, submarines, and military aircraft.

The idea behind the above clauses was the prevention of another world conflict. Though other countries in Europe also agreed to disarm, the restrictions concerning Germany were the harshest.
The Allied blockade of Germany, an important part of the capitulation of Germany, was also a tactic used by the Allies to pressure Germany to sign the Treaty of Versailles. Instated during the war as a means of defeating Germany by cutting supplies, the blockade continued even after the signing of the armistice. In all, the blockade eventually resulted in the deaths of 750,000 German civilians, mostly due to starvation.

The League of Nations

The League of Nations was an association of world nations set up according to the Fourteen Points and the Treaty of Versailles. The organization's main purpose was to encourage international cooperation and to maintain world peace.
The League of Nations did not have any real power largely because it lacked its own armed forces. Instead, it relied on forces from the world powers to enforce its sanctions. The League also did not represent all the nations in the world. Germany, for example, was excluded from joining the League.
The League suffered because of the absence of the United States. Members of the U.S. Congress such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge opposed American ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, as well as American entry into the League. Lodge and other critics of the treaty believed that the League of Nations would interfere with American interests and would eventually pull the U.S. into yet another foreign war. For this reason, the inter-war period was marked by a return to the policy of isolationism for the United States.
In 1919, the League set up a mandate system to manage former territories of the German and Ottoman Empires. Most of these territories were located in the Middle East and included Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq.

The Home Front

Home front is the informal term for the civilian populace of the nation at war as an active support system of their military. Combat soldiers depend on "home front" civilian support services such as the factories that build materiel to support the "military front".

Selective Service Act (The Draft)

At the time of World War I, the U.S. Army was small compared with the mobilized armies of the European powers. As late as 1914, the federal army was under 100,000, while the National Guard (the organized militias of the states) numbered around 115,000. The National Defense Act of 1916 authorized the growth of the army to 165,000 and the National Guard to 450,000 by 1921, but by 1917 the federal army had only expanded to around 121,000, with the National Guard numbering 181,000.

By 1916, it had become clear that any participation by the United States in the conflict in Europe would require a far larger army. While President Wilson at first wished to use only volunteers to supply the troops needed to fight, it soon became clear that this would be impossible. When war was declared, Wilson asked for the army to increase to a force of one million. Indeed, six weeks after war was declared, only 73,000 had volunteered for service.[3] Wilson accepted the recommendation by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker for a draft that included, “all male persons between the ages of 21 and 30, both inclusive, shall be subject to registration in accordance with regulations to be prescribed by the President…”


     Propaganda posters were an important tool utilized by governments during World War I. Propaganda was useful to justify a country's involvement in the war to their citizens and also to appeal for recruits, money, and resources for the war effort.

file:unclesamwantyou.jpgpropaganda poster from world war i

Impact on Intellectual Trends

     The war impacted an entire generation of young people. Those who came of age during and immediately following the war are sometimes referred to as the Lost Generation. This generation experienced feelings of disillusionment with the idealism that was a part of the World War I era. Most notably, a group of U.S. writers who came of age during the war and established their literary reputations in the 1920s embodied the concept of the lost generation. These writers included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and E.E. Cummings.

     Intellectual trends of the post-war period were also marked for new styles of literature. Some literature depicted the horrors experienced by soldiers during the war. One example is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I. A great deal of literature prior to World War I romanticized war, speaking of the glory, courage, and adventure. Remarque, however, chose to illustrate the fear, meaninglessness, and butchery that were experienced by soldiers on a daily basis during World War I. Some historians have argued that World War I demanded this type of depiction more than previous wars because it completely altered mankind's conception of military conflict. This was due in large part to the high casualty rate and the new technological advancements that made killing easier and more impersonal than ever before.

War Bonds

The federal government took several steps to fund the war and conserve resources. First, Congress raised taxes, bringing in added revenue of about $10 billion. Second, the government sold war bonds and persuaded Americans, through advertising, that it was their patriotic duty to buy them. A war bond is, in effect, a loan from a citizen to the government. The citizen gives the government, say, $10 in exchange for a bond—a slip of paper with a $10 face value. The purchaser can redeem the bond later for the face value plus what- ever interest has accumulated. The longer the purchaser holds the bond, the more money it will be worth when redeemed.

Espionage Act (Assignment #7)

     The Espionage Act was passed on June 15, 1917, shortly after the U.S. entered into World War I. This act made it a crime to aid enemies of the United States or to interfere with the war effort or with military recruitment. Fear of disloyalty and anti-German sentiments spread quickly throughout the U.S., and anyone suspected of sympathizing with the Germans faced persecution. In addition, many socialist organizations, who openly spoke out against U.S. participation in the war, were also targeted. This development helped fuel increasing anxieties regarding socialism and communism in the United States.


Eugene Debs was a member of the Social Democratic Party and later the Socialist Party of America. He ran for president for both parties at different times from 1900 to 1920. In 1918, Debs was arrested for having given a speech urging resistance efforts against the military drafts of World War I. This speech was considered dangerous, and Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison under the terms of the Espionage Act of 1917.


In 1919, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Schenck v. United States case, which upheld the creation of the Espionage Act of 1917. In this case, the Court stated that speaking out against the draft during World War I was not protected by the First Amendment. Known as speech that constitutes "clear and present danger," the Court held that language that can be viewed as dangerous cannot be protected by the government.

Sedition Act

      The Sedition Act was signed on May 16, 1918, prohibiting people from using any language that could be considered disloyal to the United States during times of war. This act has been considered by many historians to be a harsh restriction on civil liberties for American citizens.

First Red Scare

      The First Red Scare can be defined as a nation-wide fear of anarchists and communists, which took place near the end of World War I. Stemming from anxiety that European immigrants were bringing communist ideas with them to the U.S., the government responded with investigations and measures such as the Palmer Raids, a series of mass-arrests of alleged communist radicals in 1919 and 1920.

Roles during The War

Conscientious Objectors

Pacifists protested the war. Some young men acted on their beliefs by declaring themselves conscientious objectors. A conscientious object is someone who opposes war for religious or moral reasons and therefore refuses to serve in the armed forces. Despite the objections of these men, military officials drafter many pacifists into the armed forces. Those who refused to serve risked going to prison.

Women during the War

Women took differing roles during World War I. A group of Women lead by Jane Adams held a peace conferences in Washington DC. They called for a limitation of arms and mediation instead of conflict in Europe. They believe that progressive reforms would help eliminate the economic causes of war, and they feared that U.S. entry into the war would diminish support for their reform efforts.

World War I saw many women taking traditionally men's jobs for the first time in American history. Many worked on the assembly lines of factories, producing tanks, trucks and munitions. For the first time, department stores employed African American women as elevator operators and cafeteria waitresses. The Food Administration helped housewives prepare more nutritious meals with less waste and with optimum use of the foods available. Most important, the morale of the women remained high, as millions joined the Red Cross as volunteers to help soldiers and their families, and with rare exceptions, the women did not protest the draft.

African Americans during the War

W.E.B. DuBois urged blacks to join the military in an effort to help gain greater equality through military service. Du Bois wrote, “Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder without own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy." While Du Bois urged involvement, other prominent leaders opposed military support as they felt the government should be trying to fix social issues at home before fighting for democracy overseas.

The U.S. armed forces remained segregated through World War I. Still, many African Americans eagerly volunteered to join the Allied cause following America's entry into the war. By the time of the armistice with Germany on November 1918, over 350,000 African Americans had served with the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.

Most African American units were largely relegated to support roles and did not see combat. Still, African Americans played a notable role in America's war effort. One of the most distinguished units was the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the "Harlem Hellfighters", which was on the front lines for six months, longer than any other American unit in the war. 171 members of the 369th were awarded the Legion of Merit.

Hispanics (Latinos) during the War

Because the United States was largely unprepared for war, the military had to induct and train soldiers quickly. Many of the new recruits spoke little or no English, including some Latinos. At first, these men were sent to development battalions at military training camps, where they were given little attention. Sometimes ridiculed by English-speaking soldiers, many Latinos and other ethnic minorities wanted to leave the military. In response, the military developed the Camp Gordon Plan, in which soldiers were separated into language groups with officers who spoke the language of the soldiers. Once this communications gap was bridged, their military training then continued in their native language. Most of the Latinos who received such training were at the Camp Cody, New Mexico, and training camp.

At the same time, for many Latinos in Texas and other states, World War I represented their first experience with assimilation into mainstream U.S. society. For the first time, the government and society in general sought active involvement of Latinos in national life. Although some Latinos refused to register for the draft to protest being treated as second-class citizens, others hoped that active participation in the war effort would increase opportunities for them. Much discrimination remained, and Hispanic participation in World War I can be seen as the start of a struggle for equal rights in the twentieth century.

Jewish Americans during the War

The number of Jews who served in the American military during World War I was disproportionate to their representation in the American population at large. The 250,000 Jews who served represented approximately 5% of the American armed forces whereas Jews only constituted 3% of the general population.[49] As early as 1914, the American Jewish community mobilized its resources to assist the victims of the European war. Cooperating to a degree not previously seen, the various factions of the American Jewish community—native-born and immigrant, Reform, Orthodox, secular, and socialist—coalesced to form what eventually became known as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. All told, American Jews raised 63 million dollars in relief funds during the war years and became more immersed in European Jewish affairs than ever before.

Immigrants during the War

The outbreak of war in 1914 increased concern about the millions of foreign born in the United States. The short-term concern was their loyalty to their native countries and the long-term was their assimilation into American society. Numerous agencies became active in promoting "Americanization" so that the ethnics would be psychologically and politically loyal to the U.S. The states set up programs through their Councils of National Defense; numerous federal agencies were involved, including the Bureau of Education, the United States Department of the Interior and the Food Administration. The most important private organization was the National Americanization Committee (NAC) directed by Frances Kellor. Second in importance was the Committee for Immigrants in America, which helped fund the Division of Immigrant Education in the federal Bureau of Education.

The war prevented millions of recently arrived immigrants from returning to Europe as they originally intended. The great majority decided to stay in America. Foreign language use declined dramatically. They welcomed Americanization, often signing up for English classes and using their savings to buy homes and bring over other family members

German Americans during the War

German citizens were required to register with the federal government and carry their registration cards at all times. Some 2,048 German citizens were imprisoned beginning in 1917, and all were released by spring 1920. Allegations against them included spying for Germany or endorsing the German war effort. They ranged from immigrants suspected of sympathy for their native land, civilian German sailors on merchant ships in U.S. ports when war was declared, and Germans who worked part of the year in the United States.

(Assignment #8 & #9)

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