The Weltkrieg, or Great War, was a major war centered on Europe that began in the summer of 1914. The fighting effectively ended in November 1919, but the war only officially ended two years later. This conflict involved all of the world's great powers, assembled in two opposing alliances: the Entente (centred around the Triple Entente) and the Central Powers. More than 71 million military personnel, including 61 million Europeans, were mobilized in the largest war in history. More than 10 million combatants were killed, due largely to great technological advances in firepower without corresponding advances in mobility. It was the deadliest conflict in history.
The June 28th, 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was the proximate trigger of the war. Long-term causes, such as imperialistic foreign policies of the great powers of Europe, such as the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the British Empire, France, and Italy, played a major role. Ferdinand's assassination by a Serbian nationalist resulted in a Habsburg ultimatum against the Kingdom of Serbia. Several alliances formed over the past decades were invoked, so within weeks the major powers were at war; via their colonies, the conflict soon spread around the world
In the 19th century, the great powers had gone to considerable lengths to maintain a balance of power throughout Europe, resulting by 1914 in a complex network of political and military alliances throughout the continent. After the Franco-Prussian War, European conflict was averted largely due to a carefully planned network of treaties between the German Empire and the remainder of Europe orchestrated by the great Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. He especially worked to hold Russia at Germany's side to avoid a two-front war. With the ascension of Wilhelm II as German Emperor (Kaiser), Bismarck's system of alliances was gradually de-emphasised. For example, the Kaiser refused to renew the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1890. Two years later, the Franco-Russian Alliance was signed to counteract the force of the Triple Alliance. In 1904, the United Kingdom sealed an alliance with France, the Entente cordiale and in 1907, the United Kingdom and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Convention. This system of interlocking bilateral agreements formed the Triple Entente.
German industrial and economic power had grown greatly after unification and the foundation of the empire in 1870. From the mid-1890s on, the government of Wilhelm II used this base to devote significant economic resources to building up the Kaiserliche Marine, established by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, in rivalry with the British Royal Navy for world naval supremacy. As a result, both nations strove to out-build each other in terms of battleships. With the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, the British Empire expanded on its significant advantage over its German rival. The arms race between Britain and Germany eventually extended to the rest of Europe, with all the major powers devoting their industrial base to the production of the equipment and weapons necessary for a pan-European conflict. Between 1908 and 1913, the military spending of the European powers increased by 50 percent.
On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian-Serb student and member of Young Bosnia, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, Bosnia. This began a period of diplomatic manœuvring between Austria, Germany, Russia, France and Britain called the July Crisis. Wanting to end Servian interference in Bosnia conclusively, Austria delivered the July Ultimatum to Servia, a series of ten demands which were foolishly rejected. When Servia acceded to only eight of the ten demands levied against it in the ultimatum, Austria declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914, with Germany supporting her ally. Russia intervened in support of Servia, and so brought France into the war, while the German invasion of Belgium was used as a pretext by Asquith and Grey for bringing Britain into the war.
The strategy of the Central Powers suffered from miscommunication. Germany had promised to support Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia, but interpretations of what this meant differed. Previously tested deployment plans had been replaced early in 1914, but never tested in exercises. Austro-Hungarian leaders believed Germany would cover its northern flank against Russia. Germany, however, envisioned Austria-Hungary directing the majority of its troops against Russia, while Germany dealt with France. This confusion forced the Austro-Hungarian Army to divide its forces between the Russian and Serbian fronts.
The Serbian army fought the Battle of Cer against the invading Austro-Hungarians, beginning on 12 August, occupying defensive positions on the south side of the Drina and Sava rivers. Over the next two weeks Austrian attacks were thrown back with heavy losses, which marked the first major Allied victory of the war and dashed Austro-Hungarian hopes of a swift victory. As a result, Austria had to keep sizeable forces on the Serbian front, weakening its efforts against Russia
At the outbreak of the Weltkrieg, the German army (consisting in the West of seven field armies) executed a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan, designed to quickly attack France through neutral Belgium before turning southwards to encircle the French army on the German border. The plan called for the right flank of the German advance to converge on Paris and initially, the Germans were very successful, particularly in the Battle of the Frontiers (14–24 August). However, by the 12 September, the French with assistance from the British forces halted the German advance east of Paris at the First Battle of the Marne (5–12 September). The last days of this battle signified the end of mobile warfare in the west. The French offensive into Germany launched on 7 August with the Battle of Mülhausen had limited success.
In the east, only one Field Army defended East Prussia, and when Russia attacked in this region, it diverted German forces intended for the Western Front. Germany defeated Russia in a series of battles collectively known as the First Battle of Tannenberg (17 August – 2 September), but this diversion exacerbated problems of insufficient speed of advance from rail-heads not foreseen by the German General Staff. The Central Powers were thereby denied a quick victory and forced to fight a war on two fronts. The German army had fought its way into a good defensive position inside France, and had permanently incapacitated 230,000 more French and British troops than it had lost itself. Despite this, communications problems and questionable command decisions cost Germany the chance of obtaining an early victory.
Outside of Europe there was fighting in Africa and the Pacific, Togaland and all of Germany's Pacific territory (aside from a handful of holdouts in New Guinea ) were rapidly overrun.
The Germans now decided to change their tactics, fighting defensively in the West, while trying to defeat Russia quickly by attacking. Meanwhile, the Allies aimed to break through on their respective fronts. Serbia came under increased pressure from the recently-reinforced Austrians, and Britain made preparations to attack Constantinople and seize control of the Bosporus. On the 22nd of April 1915, at the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans (in violation of the Hague Convention) used chlorine gas for the first time on the Western Front. Algerian troops retreated when gassed and a six kilometre hole opened in the Allied lines.
The Germans quickly exploited the gap at Yrpes by capturing Kitcheners' Wood. Despite attacking on the Western Front, Britain and France made few gains, but suffered hundreds of thousands more casualties than their enemy. The Gallipoli landings also failed, resulting in the resignation of Winston Spencer-Churchill from the British government. Meanwhile, the Central Powers achieved what appeared to be success in the East, pushing the Russians back into Belorussia, and while Russia's manpower, manufacturing, and army remained strong, the casualties had been huge.
1916 began with both sides planning assaults: Germany aimed to grind French manpower down through a war of attrition, forcing them to defend the symbolic fortress of Verdun at horrific cost, while the Entente aimed to breakthrough on the Somme. In the East, the Germans planned to hold firm while different Russian armies planned attacks. The First Battle of Jutland (Skagerack) was fought between the British and German fleets on May 31st, and concluded with both sides proclaiming victory. The initially successful Brusilov Offensive shattered the Austrian army, and on the Western Front, the Battle of the Somme began.
The Somme Offensive rapidly proved immensely costly, even with the first deployment of tanks in battle. The Battles of the Somme and Verdun cost roughly a million men for both sides, with little appreciable gain. 1916 also witnessed the fall of German Kamerun and German South West Africa, leaving Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck's forces in East Africa as the sole remaining German forces outside of Europe.
1917 began with renewed calls within the German navy to authorise unrestricted submarine warfare in order to starve out Britain. In hindsight such a move would probably have succeeded, albeit at the cost of bringing the USA into the war. However, von Bethmann-Hollweg was determined to keep the USA neutral and managed to bring the Kaiser around to his point of view. Thus, much of the year involved the same skirmishing in the North Sea that had characterised the early years of the war. At the same time, German espionage in the US switched from sabotage campaigns to propaganda, prompting a great deal of anti-war activism from both German and Irish Americans.
At the beginning of the year, neither side was very confident about their strategic position. In Germany, internal unrest was beginning to grow as the British blockade tightened and shortages worsened. Von Hindenburg informed the Chancellor that “the military position could hardly be worse than it is”. Russia’s revival in fortunes in 1916 meant that many German units were tied down in the east, leaving the Western Front dangerously vulnerable. The Battle of the Somme had left a large portion of German lines overstretched and vulnerable, whilst Austria had taken a heavy beating in the Brusilov Offensive and was plagued by nationalist unrest across its territories. The Ottoman Empire was also crumbling in the face of Russian offensives, which had driven the Turks out of much of Armenia. However, matters seemed similarly bleak for the Entente.
The Somme had demonstrated just how futile massive frontal assaults could be, with hundreds of thousands dead for little gain. Italy's armies were still entrenched along the Isonzo front but were coming under increasing pressure from Austria. In the Middle East, British forces were pinned down in Palestine and across Mesopotamia while in Russia, revolution loomed. On the western front, Germany began the year with a full withdrawal back to the Hindenburg Line - an enormous system of fortifications. This withdrawal simultaneously strengthened and shortened their front line.This was followed by two allied offensives - a British one in Arras which proved moderately successful, and a French one at Chemin des Dames which proved to be a disaster, leading to the fall of Nivelle, the Commander-in-Chief, and his replacement by Petain. The latter's first task was to quell the widespread mutinies now breaking out amongst the French army, something he proved very capable at. Nevertheless, the army was paralyzed for most of the rest of the year.
The Czar abdicated in March, leading to the creation of the Provisional Government, which ruled only until early November when the Bolsheviks overthrew it, beginning the Russian Civil War. Further bad news for the Entente came on the Italian Front, with the great offensive at Caporetto in October which drove the Italians back to the Piave river. However the Italian army, which had been teetering on the verge of collapse in late October, managed to recover marvelously and held the Piave line against all other advances that year. The only bright spot in the year until the end was the capture of Baghdad in March and the total occupation of Mesopotamia by British troops. In the last months of 1917, Allenby broke through the defences around Gaza and captured Jerusalem. Meanwhile, a British offensive at Cambrai proved extraordinarily successful, and demonstrated the value of both strategic surprise and of the use of tanks to break trench lines if well supported by infantry.
The year ended on a tragic and ominous note. An American freighter carrying clothes, food, and toys donated by German-American families for German children for Christmas was torpedoed by a British freighter which mistook it for a German ship. Caught between public outrage (Stoked by German spies) and American financial ties, President Wilson told the British to agree to let future ships through after inspection or that sanctions would be imposed. 1918 dawned with the blockade maimed, Russia about to exit the war altogether, and Germany in position to turn the tide.
As 1918 opened both sides could see both victory and defeat looming closer. The fall of Russia allowed thousands of German troops to head west, and thousands of Austrian troops to head for Italy and Greece (which had finally joined the Entente in 1917). However, the effects of the British blockade were becoming increasingly intolerable, and the Ottoman Empire likewise seemed to be collapsing slowly. Surprisingly, the German High Command chose to maintain a defensive posture for the year, at least in the west. They gambled that the collapse of Russia and the opening of its resources to Germany, particularly the Ukraine, would alleviate the worst effects of the blockade. Moreover, it would give them the time to prepare for a grand offensive in 1919 with overwhelming strength. To aid this, smaller offensives were planned to destroy the Entente forces at Salonika and to aid the Turks, thus allowing for better concentration of forces in 1919.
Meanwhile the Entente decided that a massive offensive in the west was needed, before Germany could strengthen its forces there with its recently-returned Eastern divisions. Dubbed the 'Great Western Offensive,' the attack was planned for March and involved a near simultaneous thrust on no less than five different points along the front. While this hampered attempts to concentrate attacking forces, it was hoped that the German line and mobile reserve would not be able to defend so many places at once. Attempts were made to replicate the new tactics devised at Cambrai. Unfortunately it proved impossible to achieve surprise with such a large attack. Moreover the Germans decision to defend meant they had taken the time to devise counter-measures for the tanks. As such, when the attack was finally launched, it immediately became bogged down. The strong defences of the Hindenberg Line proved too much for the Entente forces. Only in the British attack on Lille was any notable success achieved - indeed it only proved worthwhile in the following year, as it allowed thousands more British troops to escape France. Elsewhere, the attack proved to be a costly waste of time, with over 800,000 Entente casualties.
As the offensive died down during early June, the Germans launched Operation Teutoberg, a combined German/Austrian/Bulgarian attack on Greece and the Salonika beach-head. Ludendorff used the offensive to do perfect his new attack methods trialled previously in the attack on Riga, which involved the use of small storm trooper squads infiltrating enemy lines ahead of the main advance. Once again the new tactics proved very successful. While the Austrians and Bulgarians pinned down the allied forces at Salonika the German divisions swept through Greece. Athens fell on July 3rd and Britain soon had to mount an evacuation operation to extract the remnants of the Greek army from the Peloponnese.
With Greece out of the war the German forces returned north and drove the allies back into Salonika proper. The siege of Salonika lasted 5 months until December 28th, when the last allied forces were evacuated by the British Navy. News remained bright for the Entente in the Near East however. Allenby’s forces staged a massive attack on Turkish positions in September. In the most brilliant use of cavalry seen in the entire war Allenby managed to trap and destroy around 80% of the Turkish army, captured Damascus and soon swept through Syria. The remnants of Turkish forces, hurriedly reinforced by two German and one Austrian division retired back into Asia Minor, planning to dig in and defend the mountain passes onto the central Anatolian plateau.
1918 - The War at Sea
As the year that marked the end of the post-Jutland stalemate opened, it appeared that the Entente had the upper hand. The Royal Navy’s increasing success against the U-Boat menace was due to the combined effects of convoying and further developments in naval aviation. Many observers believed that the German High Seas Fleet would ride out the war in harbour for fear of the RN, however in the first week of November the HSF put to sea out of sheer desperation in a final attempt to break the British blockade.
Under the command command of Admiral von Hipper, the HSF managed to score a remarkable victory over the RN on the 11th of that month in what became known as the Second Battle of Jutland. The actual losses of the two fleets where almost equal however the shock to an over confident RN was enough to force them back to port. The year closed with the HSF poised to roam the Atlantic at will and with the RN licking it wounds at Scapa Flow.
Planning for Germany’s Great Spring Offensive had being going on for over a year. New equipment, tactics and logistics had been developed, many of which were tested in the Greek offensive. Since the fall of Greece a second offensive had also been planned, known as Operation Radowitz, which called for an envelopment of the Italian army at the Piave by an attack from Trento. Germany sent four elite alpine divisions to spearhead the attack.
The Spring Offensive was launched on the 2nd March. The German 1st and 8th Armies attacked the French lines at St. Mihel to the south of Verdun. The storm trooper tactics worked once more, albeit not as stunningly as at Riga in 1917, or in Greece the year before. After five days of heavy fighting, the Germans broke out of the St. Mihel salient. German planners had been careful this time to have ready a large and mobile reserve which now penetrated through the gap. German forces quickly pushed west and south. Verdun itself became surrounded on the 14th and the siege began a day later while Nancy fell on the 16th. Allied divisions rushed to the front managed to slow the German advance as it approached the Marne and soon another stalemate seemed likely. However on the 26th March another German attack was launched on French positions near Rheims. While the attack had been hastily organised it succeeded partly because the allies were too overstretched and so couldn't defend the line properly. With the capture of Rheims the new allied lines near the Marne were outflanked. At this point the German 6th Army showed great skill. In three days they pushed through all opposition to capture Chateau-Thierry. This blocked the path of retreat from the Marne back to Paris and so split the French forces. While a large portion retreated southward the rest fell back on Paris. The only remaining entrenched zones were now the British lines to the North.
Meanwhile the Germans struck north and south and began to encircle Paris. The attack in Trento, begun on the 11th March, was also proving a success. Helping this was the denuding of that front by the allies in order to get reinforcements north into France. A lightning advance by the Central Powers saw them reach Verona and Vicenza on the 24th. The Italians hurriedly began to pull back from the Piave line but far too late for many. Despite strong opposition from an Australian division that held the road to Padua for three days single-handedly the Central Powers were able to push forward and reached the Adriatic coast south of Venice on the 10th April, trapping over 60% of the Italian army in doing so.
Italian morale plummeted quickly, just as it had done at Caporetto. Nevertheless it was only on the 8th June that the last Italian resistance in the pocket outside Venice surrendered. Meanwhile Venice itself came under fierce siege. The arrival of much of the Italian army in the city made defence easier but supply a lot harder. Luckily the Austrian navy was in no state to blockade Venice and so sea-supply routes were soon set up. While all this was occurring other Austrian forces were pushing southwards, aiming at seizing Rome before the end of the year. In France, Paris was surrounded by the beginning of May, and victorious the German forces halted to regroup and plan their next offensive. This proved to be a mistake, for it gave time for much of the British army to pull back and retreat slowly towards the Channel Ports. Thus, when the Germans began a new drive for the coast around Dieppe in June, the British had already managed to get the bulk of their army out of the trap by an extended naval evacuation. A few Belgian units were also evacuated, but returned home soon after with the surrender of their country.
Following the collapse of Italy, Empress Zewditu of Ethiopia approached Germany and offered to join the Central Powers in exchange for being able to annex the lands Italy had stolen from her. Lacking any interest in them, the Kaiser agreed.
In both France and Italy, the Entente was in full retreat. Paris and Venice were both under siege while German, Austrian and Bulgarian armies raced southwards down the country at a speed which seemed incredible next to the pace of trench warfare that had dominated the prior years of the war. In the end, Rome fell on the 1st of August. Five days later, Italy unconditionally surrendered to the Germans in the hopes of avoiding Austria’s harsh terms. What little remained of a coherent Italian army was still pinned in Venice, while its capital and industrial heartland had fallen. The surrender of Italy also allowed a southern invasion of France. Marseilles fell in late September, but by then it was clear that France too was doomed.
Thus on the 4th of October, with Paris only weeks away from surrender, the French government likewise chose to surrender to the Germans, their decision no doubt hastened by the rising radicalism amongst the working class soldiery. This left Britain as the only remaining major Entente power left in the war, although Japan remained strong in the east too. In Turkey Allenby had been recalled to help defend France. His successor, Sir William Marshall, launched two attacks on the Turkish defences which failed only due to a shortage of men. But with the Central Powers free to reinforce Turkey next year, it was clear that Britain was in deep trouble. Thus, on November 11th, 1919, representatives of the two sides met in Copenhagen to sign a ceasefire. But the guns did not fall silent completely.
1919 - The War at SeaTo coincide with the Germany Army’s spring offensive, the HSF was ordered to strike at targets of opportunity, particularly in the French Navy that was at this stage in open mutiny. Battlecruiser raids on Entente convoys where actually rarer than the RN feared, although this did not stop the adoption of a disastrous policy of de-convoying that lead to an upsurge in U-Boat attacks. Despite the country’s official neutrality, German warships often coaled in Spanish ports, allowing them to operate with deadly efficiency against the French.
By May, the British had decided to detach single vessels from the fleet to effectively commandeer the French Navy, which lead to the supreme irony of French warships assisting the evacuation of British troops in June, a move that effectively doomed the French government. The final months of the year saw a slow attrition of the RN by an increasingly assertive von Hipper including the destruction of the Aerodrome Ship HMS Furious on 4th October, the very day of the French surrender.
The Rest of the War 1920-1921