WW1: A History


The First World War began on 4 August 1914. The first battles of the conflict were old fashioned cavalry charges. By the end of the war in 1918 warfare had been revolutionised by modern weapons such as submarines, tanks, machine guns, aircraft and heavy artillery weapons.

The war produced the heaviest death toll that had ever been seen in warfare.  It claimed 16 million military and civilian lives and 21 million were wounded. The British death toll was 995, 939 with a further 1.6 million wounded. This remains the highest figure of all the wars Britain ever fought in.

For Britain, the “Great War” was the “war to end all wars”.

The Western Front

The two rival power groupings at the beginning of the war were “The Triple Entente”- Britain, France and Russia and “The Central Powers” (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Around these powers clustered other smaller and larger allies.

The German army expected to win the war quickly by launching a devastating attack on France via Belgium to be followed by an equally decisive attack on Russia in Eastern Europe. This was called the Schlieffen plan (named after a famous German general who devised it). It nearly won the war.

The French army, supported by the much smaller British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was initially surprised by the strength of the German attack as it moved remorselessly through Belgium and advanced on to French territory. The assault was halted by the BEF at the Battle of Mons in August 1914 and then stopped by the French army at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914. The German army was now forced to retreat to the River Aisne.

By the end of September 1914, the Schlieffen plan had failed. Germany now faced a long war on two fronts in western and Eastern Europe.  Soldiers on both sides on the western front now set about digging a line of trenches, separated by a barbed wire “no man’s land” that ultimately stretched for hundreds of miles from the Swiss border to the English Channel.

The German army constructed an almost impregnable line of trenches. German trenches were more tolerable than the British and French versions. The Germans had better steel helmets and created fields of barbed wire that proved impossible to breach. The British and French armies suffered huge casualties whenever they attempted to launch offensives against the German army. The massed trenches on the western front ensured there was a stalemate for the first three years of the war. Trench warfare gave rise to the view that the First World War was a “futile war”.

On Christmas Day 1914, soldiers from both sides decided to have a truce for the day and engaged in a football kick about. This incident heightened the sense that ordinary soldiers had no great animosity towards each other and were being led by uncaring generals with little concern for human life.  While they were in the trenches some soldiers on both sides wrote poignant anti war poetry and frequent letters home to their loved ones.

The German army remained on the defensive for most of 1915. It was in 1916 that the First World War assumed the bloody character for which it is now remembered.  Both sides tried to break the deadlock, most notably, at the Battle of Verdun, which lasted for most of the year and saw a combined death toll of a staggering 700,000 and at the Battle of the Somme, which ran from July to November 1916. The British army lost 20,000 on the first day alone. By the end of the battle, the British had lost 418,000; the Germans 450,000 and the French 194,000. Verdun and the Somme were two of the bloodiest battles on the western front during the First World War. A close third in terms of deaths was the Third Battle of Yypres in 1917.

In these battles, mass infantry attacks were beaten back by the use of heavy artillery and machine guns with little territory gained for other side. These new weapons showed the old cavalry charge of the 19th century was not suited to the new conditions of 20th century warfare.

The generals on both sides were blamed by contemporary soldiers for having little concern with the lives of their soldiers. It was said the leading British General Sir Douglas Haig used British soldiers as “cannon fodder”. Haig’s diaries reveal a startling indifference to the mounting number of deaths.

More recently, revisionist historians have highlighted the difficult task faced by the generals, who were trying to turn untrained conscripts into soldiers who could match the highly trained German army. The generals were under pressure from their governments and public opinion to end the stalemate and win the war too.

The Home Front

The increased ferocity of the battle in the First World War tested the military and economic resources of each nation to the limit. Deaths on the battlefield were felt by families on the home front. Every family dreaded the arrival of a telegram announcing the death of a loved one, but all craved a letter from a loved one.  Letter writing was the major way that soldiers kept in touch with their families in the days before the widespread use of the telephone.

To pay for the war, Britain and France raised taxes and borrowed money, especially from the USA. Arms expenditure by the major powers rose from 4% of national income in 1914 to 25%. Many factories were turned over to munitions production. The German government pushed up its national debt to astronomical levels in the hope victory would pay off debts. The war placed the greatest economic military on nations that lacked modern industry, especially, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Russia, which eventually collapsed into economic chaos, revolution and defeat in 1917.

The British government moved towards greater state control.  Britain was not damaged by bombs as military aircraft was in its infancy during World One. The British government did not even introduce conscription until 1916. The idea of forcing a British person to fight had initially been seen as against the idea of free will.

When David Lloyd George replaced Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister in a new war-time coalition in December 1916 the British economy became more centrally organised and state interference in the economy increased.

Women increasingly began to take over work previously carried out by men in key war industries. The employment of women in Britain increased from 3.5 million 3.5 million to 5 million from 1914 to 1918. The war gave women the opportunity to show they could compete on equal terms with men. As a result, the status of women was greatly enhanced. In 1918 women over 30 were granted the vote in general elections.

Trade union leaders agreed to the introduction of increased working hours to speed up war production. The increased status of unions aided the growth in support for the Labour Party.

The British government controlled the presentation of the war by appointing a Minister of Propaganda. The press was encouraged to support government publicity campaigns. Posters were produced that denounced the enemy and silent propaganda films and newsreels were shown in cinemas. Many war songs also became popular with the general public when performed in music halls.

The War at Sea

Britain had the advantage of being the most superior naval power in the world. This enabled the Allies to use a naval blockade in an attempt to starve Germany and its allies of food and raw materials. In the end, the naval blockade did produce starvation rations in Germany, particularly towards the end of the war. Guns on British battleships were more powerful than their German vessels. The new British torpedo destroyer was used to devastating effect during the conflict. These tactical advantages meant the Royal Navy retained command of the seas between 1914 and 1918.

The most significant naval engagement between the British and German navies was during the war came at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The Germans sank 14 British ships as opposed to 11 sunk by the Royal Navy, but the Germans could not afford such losses. After Jutland, the German surface navy returned to port.

The Germans fought their naval war underwater. The German navy engaged in ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’. This meant they not only attacked the vessels of the Allies, but also of non-combatant powers, particularly the USA. This inflamed American public opinion and was one of the key reasons why the USA joined the war on the Allied side on 1917.

The disaster at Gallipoli

With a never ending deadlock in the trenches of the western front both sides searched for some way of gaining an advantage. Both sides searched for new Allies. Italy, Japan, Greece, and Romania all joined the war on the Allied side. Germany attracted much weaker allies such as Turkey and Bulgaria.

Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, thought opening up a new front might break the deadlock. He decided to land British troops by the sea at Gallipoli and then knock out Turkey, a German ally, by taking Constantinople. It was a bold plan.

British troops, supported by Australian and New Zealand forces landed by sea at Gallipoli in 1915, but they never got beyond the beach and were beaten back by Turkish forces. Turkey survived and Bulgaria now joined the war on the side of Germany thereby putting further pressure on Russia on the eastern front. The Gallipoli catastrophe led to the resignation of Winston Churchill whose reputation was deeply damaged by the fiasco.

New Weapons

It was thought new weapons might provide a breakthrough. Poison gas, airships, tanks and aircraft were all introduced. The British were the first to introduce the tank into warfare, but early tanks were large, slow and kept breaking down. It was only towards the end of the war, particularly at the Battle of Amiens in 1918 that the tanks proved a decisive weapon for the Allies. There was also a greater use on both sides of motorised transport. In 1914, the British had 1,000 Lorries to supply troops. By 1918, this had risen to 60,000.

The potential of aircraft, particularly for bombing purposes, was not fully appreciated during World War One. Most aircraft used in the first years of war were small and travelled at low speeds. It was only in the last year of the war that the range, size and bombing potential of aircraft was realised. It not until the Second World War, however, that aircraft became a deadly weapon of warfare.

The Entry of the USA

The most significant new entrant to the First World War was unquestionably the USA, which entered the on the Allied side in April 1917. The entry of the USA did not have an immediate impact though. In 1917, the US Army numbered only 130,000 men. By the start of 1918, US economic muscle, supplies of military equipment and a vast increase in manpower started to have an impact. By the end of the war, the US deployed 2 million men on the western front in Europe.

The entry of the USA greatly helped the Allies define to the public what they were fighting the war for. Woodrow Wilson, the US President claimed the war was being fought to achieve two aims

1. To uphold democratic principles

2. To defend the right of small nations to govern themselves (called national self-determination)

As Britain and France were imperial powers with large Empires it was debateable whether they supported such principles.

On 8 January 1918, Wilson laid down what he called the “14 points” for a post-war settlement. This was the clearest statement of the Allies democratic aims. There was talk of a “New World Order” based on open diplomacy, free trade, democracy, right of small nations to govern themselves and the creation of a League of Nations to stop any nation the attempting to dominate the world by force again.

The Eastern Front

The war on the Eastern Front was primarily a German-Russian war. It was felt the vast human resources of Russia would eventually bleed the German army to death in a long war. After all, Napoleon had failed to defeat Russia in 1812.

In September 1914, the Russian army defeated the Germans at battles at Tannenberg and then Masurian Lakes and also defeated the Austro-Hungarian Army at Galicia.  In June 1916, the Russian mounted their last offensive of the war, almost bringing Austria-Hungary to the verge of collapse.

The better equipped Germany army was eventually able to push the Russians back and captured most of Poland during 1915.  By 1916, a stalemate of massed trenches had developed on the eastern front too

The Russian economy began to collapse. There was an increase of rebellion among the troops and disorder in the major cities. The revolutionary Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, promised hungry Russian peasants and soldiers he would withdraw Russia from what he called “a capitalist war”. In February 1917, the deeply unpopular Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and a “provisional government” took power. It decided to carry on the war. This was a fatal error.  In October 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks took power.

The new Bolshevik regime decided to negotiate peace terms with Germany.  The terms imposed on Russia under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of November 1917 were extremely harsh. Russia conceded 33% of territory, 40% of iron production and 24% of steel making capacity to Germany.

Germany had won the war on the eastern front.  The withdrawal of Russia was a terrible blow to the Allies. At the end of 1917 seemed the First World War had turned in favour of Germany. These were very dark days for the Allies.

The Defeat of Germany in 1918

Yet revolutionary events in Russia were to influence the growth of revolutionary fervour in Germany. The Social Democratic Party, supported by communist trade unionists, organise strikes in key industries and agitated for an end to the war.  In January 1918, a general strike brought Berlin to a standstill.

The German army leadership ignored growing opposition on the home front and planned a major offensive on the western front to try and win the war. In March 1918, the German Ludendorff offensive was launched. It came close to success. The German army broke did break the deadlock on the River Somme and were just 40 miles from Paris in May 1918.

The Allies managed to halt the German assault. In August 1918, the Battle of Amiens, under the overall command of the French general Marshal Foch, began the “100 days offensive” that finally broke the four year deadlock on the western front.

The German army was now in retreat during the autumn of 1918. The two leading German generals- Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg- advised German politicians to form a democratic government and negotiate peace terms with the Allies. The Kaiser abdicated.

At 5 a.m. on 11 November 1918 the armistice was signed. At exactly 11 a.m. the First World War finally ended

What were the consequences of the First World War?

The First World War had far reaching consequences.

1. Four major empires- Germany- Russia- Austria Hungary- and the Ottoman Turkish Empire- ruled by monarchs- collapsed.

2. The war claimed 16 million lives and 21 million wounded. Most of the dead were young men under 25 who had served on the battlefield. They were called “The Lost Generation”. There were millions of widows and orphans in the post-war world.

3. The economic consequences of the war were equally catastrophic. Only the USA gained economically from the war. The world economy collapsed and damaged all the major powers. Britain never really recovered from the First World War economically and it owed huge debts to the USA. Unemployment and inflation increased. The war really led to the long term economic dominance of the USA.

4. The war also accelerated the trend towards totalitarian regimes. The Russian Revolution started this trend, but there was a growth of right wing nationalist parties in Germany and Italy and ultimately these powers became the trouble makers in the 1930s. A disgruntled soldier- Adolf Hitler- formed the Nazi Party and he would ultimately launch the Second World War in 1939. Hitler was a child of the First World War and he was determined to gain revenge for the defeat in 1918.

The First World War was seen as “the war to end wars”- but peace only lasted until 1939.

By: Professor Frank McDonough

Share this: