The First World War, 1914-1918 Background

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The First World War, 1914-1918


At the beginning of the 20th century, Europeans dominated the world. Vast areas of Africa and Asia were ruled directly from Europe by imperial powers. Most of the world was at least indirectly under European or U.S. control (spheres of influence). The Great Powers in Europe were Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. A balance of power existed for most of the 19th century between these countries, which prevented them from waging war on one another. In addition, European nations formed alliances with one another to further discourage competitors from seeking war. The balance of power shifted slightly during the 19th century, giving an advantage to France, than Britain until about the 1870s. In 1871, however, a new power emerged. At this time, the once independent German states united under the leadership of the Prussian monarchy. This threatened the balance of power, as Germany was now the greatest industrial, economic, and military power on the continent. From 1871 onward, the goal of European nations was to prevent Germany from dominating Europe as its power grew.

Answering these questions will be your notes (so write the answers in your notebook):

Who were the great European powers?

What kept Europe from going to war in the 1800s?

What disrupted the balance of power?

Causes (4 - this means there are 2 others)

Militarism: Before the outbreak of WWI, powerful European nations were building up their militaries and keeping armies prepared for war. Powerful militaries were necessary both to maintain a balance of power and to sustain empires in distant parts of the world. Populations were enthusiastic for war. Most countries introduced compulsory military service, and the values of the military, including obedience and discipline, were regarded as desirable for everyone in society. Military leaders enjoyed celebrity status, and children were encouraged to join quasi-military organizations.

Alliances: Countries formed defensive alliances with other countries in order to protect and promote their interests and security. Countries pledged to come to the aid of their allies in the event of war. For example, France and Russia formed an alliance against the Germans (their mutual enemy), and Germany formed an alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Other countries pledged to help smaller, less powerful nations to with which they shared nationalistic bonds. For example, Russia became the protector of tiny Serbia, a Balkan nation that that shared ethnic and cultural ties with its more powerful neighbor.

Answering these questions will be your notes (so write the answers in your notebook):

Militarism: What are a three (3) reasons why people wanted to go to war?

Alliances: Explain what an alliance is by creating an example from high school.

Causes (4 - this means there are 2 others)

Imperialism: For centuries, European nations had been in competition to control colonies in other parts of the world. In the 50 years preceding WWI, Great Powers had gobbled up territories in Africa and Asia that provided them with vast amounts of wealth and power. Colonies provided powerful nations with raw materials necessary to fuel their industrialized economies, as well as giving them more markets in which to sell manufactured goods. Many colonies were of strategic importance militarily speaking. Colonies also were a source of pride for competing empires; the more a country could control and dominate in other parts of the world, the greater the image of that country became in the eyes of its peers.

Nationalism: Patriotism ran high among citizens of the Great Powers. Many believed their country was the best and strongest, and desired war in order to prove their national dominance. War was romanticized and idealized. As countries grew in industrial and military strength, many leaders boasted of their country’s power. They encouraged an attitude of nationalistic chauvinism or belligerence, which fed the already simmering tensions between European nations.

Answering these questions will be your notes (so write the answers in your notebook):

Imperialism: In one sentence, explain what Imperialism is.

Nationalism: Explain how nationalism could lead to war by using at least 1 of the other causes.

Outbreak of War

Given the underlying tensions present in European politics at the beginning of the 20th century, very little was needed to incite war. The spark that ignited long simmering tensions came in 1914 when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated during a state visit to Sarajevo in the Balkan Peninsula. The Archduke was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist and member of an underground terrorist group committed to ridding the Balkans of imperial rule. The Austro-Hungarians blamed Serbia for the assassination and submitted a list of demands to the Serbian government. Serbia agreed to all but two demands, two which they felt unfairly undermined their sovereignty. Unwilling to compromise, Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.

The Domino Effect of Alliances

Russia, Serbia’s pledged defender, immediately authorized the mobilization of forces against Austria-Hungary. Germany perceived Russian mobilization as a threat to its safety, and declared war against Russia on August 1, 1914. On August 3, Germany declared war on France, Russia’s ally and Germany’s neighbor to the west. On August 4, Britain responded to German aggression by declaring war against Germany. Italy, Canada, Japan, and eventually, the United States, joined the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, etc.) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire).

Answering these questions will be your notes (so write the answers in your notebook):

What was Austria-Hungary’s pretext for going to war?

What was the reason that this turned into a true ‘world war’?

Fighting the War (1914-1918)

For four years, war was waged across the globe. Fighting took place primarily in Europe and Southwest Asia, but battles at sea occurred as well. Soldiers were recruited not only from participating countries but also from colonies which these countries controlled. The Western Front of the war, fought primary in Belgium and northern France, was characterized by Trench Warfare, or fighting from ditches dug deep into the earth. Trenches stretched for miles and fighting quickly reached a stalemate as neither side was able to gain an advantage. Equally matched in human forces, the introduction of mechanized weaponry changed the face of war. Machine guns, tanks, poison gas, and artillery kept men trapped in the trenches and spelled disaster when they ventured out of them. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives in four years of fighting on the Western Front.

Fighting on the Eastern Front of the war remained more mobile than in the West. There, the Russians battled Germans and Austro-Hungarians. Fighting also stretched into Turkey, Italy, and the Balkans. WWI was the first war in which airplanes were used, both for gathering intelligence and combat.

Total War

In order to prevail, all major participants in WWI fought without limits or restrictions. The war itself was inescapably severe in nature. Mechanized weaponry increased the number of casualties each side suffered, as well as devastating vast tracts of land. Governments took control of railways, production, and rationed goods for civilians. Civilians in many countries experienced shortages of food and supplies. Many civilians worked jobs to support the war effort, both at the front and at home. Women took over jobs that men had traditionally performed, including farming and manufacturing. The use of propaganda was widespread both to vilify the enemy and to rally support for men at war. Major participants in WWI invested all their available resources in effort to win the war. Those who won did so in large part because they were able to out-produce their opponents.

Answering these questions will be your notes (so write the answers in your notebook):

What are the six (6) things that made this war so deadly?

Give three (3) examples of things that made this a true ‘total war.’

The End of the Great War

By 1917, the enormous human and economic costs of the war were evident to almost everyone. Russia was on the verge of collapse. Austro-Hungarian forces were becoming restless and undisciplined. Desertions became more frequent across the board as soldiers began to question what it was they were fighting for. The entrance of the U.S. into the war that year tipped the scales in favor of the Allies. The Central Powers were losing and it was clear they would not be able to hold out much longer. A deadly flu epidemic drove up death tolls among soldiers and civilians, hitting Germany particularly hard. Facing unavoidable defeat, the German army sought terms for an armistice (truce). The armistice was officially signed on November 11, 1918.

Consequences of the War

Over eight million soldiers and civilians died in Europe alone during WWI. Many soldiers were maimed or disabled due to injuries they had received at the front. Others suffered from severe mental and emotional problems as a result of their horrific war time experiences. Devastation of land and property, especially along the Western Front, was spectacular. Countries like Britain and France saw the majority of an entire generation of young men killed. The United States emerged from the war as a superpower. Russia had experienced a Revolution and was now controlled by a communist government. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires no longer existed. Germany was economically and politically devastated. Germans would face shame and extreme hardship in the years to follow.

Answering these questions will be your notes (so write the answers in your notebook):

What was the major turning point in the war?

List four (4) major results of the war?

The Peace of Paris

In June of 1919, negotiations for a peace settlement were held in Paris. The countries who held the most power in these negotiations were France, Britain, and the U.S. As victors, they were able to make demands of the losers, especially Germany. The leaders of these three countries had some similar and some differing goals. For example, they all sought to limit German militarism to prevent another war from occurring. They also agreed to redraw the map of Europe, creating independent nations from fallen empires to satisfy nationalist movements. Britain and France, however, were especially determined to harshly punish Germany, who they blamed almost exclusively for the destruction of the war. The President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, desired to create lasting peace in Europe and throughout the world through the formation of the League of Nations, an international peace keeping organization that would work to solve disputes through diplomacy. The League of Nations was accepted in the Treaty of Versailles, though its ability to prevent conflicts would be challenged in the years to come. Intent on punishing Germany harshly, Britain and France pushed for the acceptance of a War Guilt Clause, which placed sole responsibility on Germany for the war. It assigned blame and provided justification for demanding war reparations from the Germans. The treaty required Germany to pay millions of dollars in reparations to the Allies. The treaty also put severe limitations on the German military and required Germany to hand over territory to the Allies and other newly formed nations.

Answering these questions will be your notes (so write the answers in your notebook):

What country was blamed for the entire war?

List three (3) solutions to the end of World War I that might have causes World War II.

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