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, which began in August 1914, and continued on several fronts for the next four years.
ENTENTE AND CENTRAL POWERS OF WORLD WAR I
During World War I, the Entente Powers—Britain, France, Serbia, and Imperial Russia (joined later by Italy, Greece, Portugal, Romania, and the United States)—fought the Central Powers—Germany and Austria-Hungary (joined later by Ottoman Turkey and Bulgaria).
Initial enthusiasm on all sides for a quick and decisive victory faded as the war bogged down into 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, roughly from the North Sea to the Swiss border, and defined the war for most North American and western European combatants. The vast expanse of the eastern front prevented large-scale trench warfare, but the scale of the conflict was equal to that on the western front. Heavy fighting also occurred in Northern Italy, in the Balkans, and in Ottoman Turkey. Combat took place at sea and, for the first time, in the air.
ENTRY OF THE UNITED STATES INTO WORLD WAR I
A decisive change in the hostilities came in April 1917 when Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare drove the United States of America 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.
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. In February of that year, the Czarist government's poor management of the war had helped to inspire a popular uprising, the February Revolution. This revolution forced the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and placed in power a Provisional Government of liberal and socialist factions, ultimately under the leadership of Socialist Revolutionary party member Alexander Kerensky. This brief experiment with pluralist democracy was a chaotic one, and in the summer months, the continual deterioration of the war effort and an increasingly dire economic situation caused Russian workers, soldiers, and sailors to riot ("The July Days").
On October 24–25, 1917, Bolshevik (left-wing socialist) forces under Vladimir Lenin seized key government buildings and stormed the Winter Palace, then the seat of the new government in Russia's capital, Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). The "Great October Socialist Revolution," the first successful Marxist coup in history, dislodged the ineffectual Provisional Government, and ultimately established a Soviet Socialist Republic under Lenin's leadership. The new Soviet state's radical social, political, economic, and agrarian reforms would in the postwar years unnerve western democratic governments, who so feared the spread of Communism throughout Europe that they were willing to compromise or appease right-wing regimes (including Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany) in the 1920s and 1930s.
But 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.
ENTENTE POWERS ADVANCE; CENTRAL POWERS SURRENDER
Despite German successes, knocking Bolshevik Russia out of the war in late winter 1918, and reaching the gates of Paris during the summer, 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 ("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. Workers and soldiers' councils, based on the Soviet model, sparked the so-called "German revolution"; the first "councils republic" (Räterrepublik) was established under Independent Social Democrat (USPD) Kurt Eisner in Bavaria. Germany's strong Social Democratic Party (SPD) under Friedrich Ebert viewed the newly established councils as a destabilizing element, and advocated instead the demands of German popular opinion for parliamentary reform and for peace.
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.
LOSSES DURING WORLD WAR I
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, as well as the failure of military leaders 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. On July 1, 1916, the date which saw the heaviest loss of life in a single 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.
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 persons 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.