An introduction to World War I

world war i
A victim of trench warfare during the Western Front, discovered long after the 1918 armistice

World War I was a defining event in world history. In August 1914 the nations of Europe tumbled into a war that would ravage their continent and shape the course of the next century. Mankind had known wars of destruction and folly before – but none approached the scale and barbarity of World War I. For four years Europe was paralysed and ravaged by the horrors of industrial weaponry, militarism and total war. The war lacerated the continent, creating two war fronts spanning hundreds of miles each. Millions of fit, healthy men were placed in uniform and marched into the killing fields of France, Belgium and the Eastern Front. Fighting also spread beyond the war’s European crucible, breaking out in the Dardanelles, the Middle East and the distant colonies of Africa and Asia. On the seas, cargo ships and passenger vessels were threatened by blockades and destroyed by submarines, a revolutionary form of naval warfare. World War I was also fought high in the sky, by flying machines that had not been conceived just two decades before. Conflict on this scale required ‘total war’: a war supplied and perpetuated by the coordinated efforts of governments, economies and entire societies. As Winston Churchill later said, “all the horrors of all the ages were brought together; not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them”.

Human error and misjudgement were tragic features of the conflict. The historian A. J. P. Taylor once wrote that blunders shape history more than wickedness; he might have said this with World War I in mind. Many elements of the war, particularly its causes, now seem avoidable, if not absurd. The war emerged not from a pressing dispute or territorial claim, but a poisonous mix of nationalism, xenophobia, paranoia, militaristic bravado, imperialist ambition, misunderstanding and folly. None of this caught anyone by surprise: these attitudes had prickled European relations since the late 19th century. Looking back a century later, it seems ridiculous that modern statesmen and intellectuals could be so blind to these dangers. But blind they were – and the consequences for those they ruled would prove catastrophic. Military and strategic incompetence and short-sightedness also played their part. For years Europe’s career generals had predicted, even expected an industrial war, yet they failed to anticipate what form it might take. Their battle plans were largely based on outdated modes of warfare, some dating back to the days of Napoleon. Strategists clung to the idea that any defensive line could be penetrated, if enough men, horses and bayonets were thrown against it. Germany’s Schlieffen Plan – an ambitious offensive and flanking attack, designed to knock the French out of the war before Russia could fully mobilise – fell short of its ultimate objectives. By late 1914 the Schlieffen assault, slowed by French and Belgian resistance, had run out of steam. As millions of troops poured into northern France, the war froze into stalemate. Armies dug into the ground so that they could hold it; the value of the offensive push was negated by the machine gun and the trench. In just a few weeks of war, the best plans of Europe’s military elite had been exposed as as balderdash.

world war i
Soldiers await an enemy advance, 1915
“The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots… Over half those who died in the Great War were lost as corpses to the wilderness of the battlefield.”
John Keegan, historian

The human cost of World War I was staggering. At least 12 million people were killed on the battlefield, many of them utterly obliterated. Millions more were left wounded and disfigured, limbless, crippled or seriously injured. The weapons of industrial warfare, particularly artillery and machine gun fire, chewed through young men as a farm machine threshes through hay. Around ten per cent of all French men under the age of 45 were killed or reported missing. Russia lost so many soldiers it was unable to tally them accurately to the nearest million. Sparsely populated Australia sent more than 415,000 volunteer servicemen – almost ten per cent of its entire population – to the battlefields of Gallipoli, the Middle East and the Western Front. Of this number around one Australian serviceman in every seven would die. Very few of the wartime generation escaped physical suffering, psychological scarring or bereavement. Almost every civilian had a connection with casualties of war.

In some respects World War I was a confrontation between the old and the new, a transforming event that shattered traditional ideas and beliefs. The war certainly changed the political, social and cultural landscape of Europe. Its most visible fatalities were Europe’s old monarchies, which did not survive the maelstrom they themselves had unleashed. In Germany, the Hohenzollern monarchy was toppled from within by its starving people, the kaiser abdicating and taking refuge in Holland. In Russia, the Romanov tsar suffered an even worse fate, overthrown by his own people and later murdered. In Austria-Hungary, neither the Hapsburg royal house or its patchwork empire survived the war. While the removal of these old dynasties was celebrated by many as a step into modernity, their departure left power vacuums and new regimes that proved no better – and in the case of Russia was considerably worse. The war also fanned the flames of political and social reform. Left wing politics flourished as Europeans sought new answers and explanations. The melancholy post war years also gave rise to modernist artistic movements, that sought to capture the despair of the people.

world war i
The failure to resolve World War I gave rise to an even worse spectre: Adolf Hitler and Nazism

The final battleground of World War I was in the meeting rooms of Paris in 1919. There the statesmen of Europe set about rebuilding their continent and crafting a peace they hoped would last for generations. History reveals it as a battle they lost. The worst decisions are often made in anger – and the ‘big men’ of Paris placed a higher store on blame and retribution than on reconciliation and reconstruction. Germany, excluded from the peace talks, was forced to admit absolute responsibility for starting the war. She was stripped of her industries, left with a skeleton military and slapped with crippling reparations payments. Already devastated by years of war and starvation, the German state soon became an economic basket case, leaving it open to the perils of political extremism. Thinking themselves betrayed and unjustly treated, Germany’s ex-soldiers, militarists and bigots embraced an even more intense and embittered nationalism. The Austro-Hungarian empire was torn apart, its land and people handed to existing nations or used to create new ones. The United States also contributed to the failure of post-war reconstruction. Washington’s refusal to accept membership of the League of Nations, a multi-national body intended to resolve crisis and prevent war, undermined this body before it was even formed.

Alpha History’s World War I section contains more than 400 different resources, including succinct yet informative topic pages, supplementary information and a wide array of primary sources. These resources will help you obtain a confident understanding of one of the 20th century’s most important historical events.


© Alpha History 2014. Content on this page may not be republished or distributed without permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “An introduction to World War I” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/introduction-to-world-war-i/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].

  • 1
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •