World War I, at the time referred to as The Great War or The European War, lasted from 1914 to 1918.

When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot on June 4, 1914, Austria sent Serbia an ultimatum demanding concessions that they didn't expect to get, hoping to provoke a war. Serbia sent back their answer a mere two minutes before the deadline, and did not make clear what their answer was, but it was not unfriendly. Austria attacked anyway. Russia had promised Serbia support in case of an attack. France had assured Russia of its support. Great Britain was hoping to reach a peaceful solution, and Germany had told everyone to stay out of the whole thing.

It ended up with Germany declaring war on Russia on August 1, and then on France on August 3. En route to France, Germany attacked Belgium. Belgium was on Great Britain's side, so Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4. Things escalated from there. The U.S. was mostly trying to get everyone to stop fighting, but the Germans kept sinking their boats; then the U.S. found out that the Germans were trying to get Mexico to attack them, and the U.S. joined the Allies.

10 million died, 20 million were wounded. The countries involved spent an estimated $200 billion trying to kill people. This was, as stated, the great war. Partially, this was due to the number of participants, but it was also the first European war in which machine guns, submarines, torpedoes, tanks, airplanes, and chemical weapons were used in large scale, and these new technologies changed the war, making it unbalanced and unpredictable in surprising ways.

Machine guns and advanced artillery made infantry much less effective; well armed ground troops on both sides found that they were canon fodder, and the only way to combat this was to dig trenches, and stay in them. Trenches were wonderfully effective, and entrenched troops could hold positions almost indefinitely, which did not stop the higher-ups from trying anything they could to advance on the enemy. One common tactic was attempting to flank the enemy, digging the trenches laterally until they were able to sneak around and attack from behind; this was easily countered by the enemy by the simple expedient of likewise keeping pace in extending their own trenches. This led to ridiculous stagnation, as when the 1914 Race to the Sea resulted in the French and German armies building flanking earthworks in a continuous 400-mile line extending from Brasles northward until it eventually dead-ended at the North Sea.

The Germans were to come up with an unpleasant solution to the (in)effectiveness of trench warfare: chemical weapons. On April 22, 1915 the Germans released chlorine gas over the French troops at Ypres, quite effectively breaking their line. The German army, however, had very little faith in the gas attack, and had not planned a concentrated advance through the broken line; by the next day, the Allies had already identified the nature of the gas and were putting protections in place (starting with simply putting a damp cloth over one's mouth; it worked, barely). Chemical warfare continued on both sides, causing great human suffering but very limited military success.

The other solution to the machine gun/entrenchment problem was tanks. The development of the internal combustion engine meant that not only could carts now move themselves, it meant that even very heavy carts could move themselves. Continuous track vehicles had been commercially available since 1901 (initially used by steam-powered tractors), and at the start of the war gasoline powered, treaded Holt tractors were being used by both sides to haul artillery around. The British quickly started work on a tank that could be used offensively; the Mark I entered service in August 1916. The French followed suit shortly, in April 1917, while the Germans, only really starting development once they saw the Allied tanks on the field, only managed to get 20 tanks deployed before the whole thing ended. The Germans did, however, lead the way in anti-tank weapons. By 1917-1918 this new vehicle had proven that it could advance the front line even against an entrenched enemy, and it was quickly on its way to becoming the new cavalry.

As an aside, the cavalry were still around; arguably made useless long ago with the development of the deadly Minie ball, the machine gun pretty much put paid to whatever value remained. Regardless, the military commanders liked tradition, so cavalry regiments sat in the background, mostly waiting for opportunities to charge that never came.

Meanwhile, the naval situation was comparatively peaceful. Both sides had invested, for decades, in an arms race to make the biggest boats with the biggest guns. Additionally, in 1906 the HMS Dreadnought had introduced steam turbine engines to the world of battleship design (previously, ships had used heavier reciprocating steam engines), which would result in much higher speeds. Meanwhile, while the English and Americans were proudly reducing armor to maximize their new-found speed boost, the Germans had invested in submarines, mines, and torpedoes. This made it much too dangerous for aggressors to enter protected German bays. In response, the British retreated to a 'distant blockade' of the Germans, hanging around at the furthest point that could be considered militarily useful. And they sat.

In February of 1915, Germany finally broke the taboo against using submarines to hunt merchant vessels, and started attacking British non-combatant ships. This worked very well for them from a military perspective, but the sinking of the Lusitania and then the Arabic resulted in enough American deaths to get the US angry, and the Germans.... stopped. They would start hunting merchant vessels again in February of 1917, but this had given the Allies time to prepare, and a working hydrophone and effective depth charges were in service before the end of the year, while Allied minefields had been placed to protect against German subs approaching England. Compared to ground troops, comparatively few sailors died, and the main outcome was the slowly dawning realization that dreadnoughts and the equivalent were not particularly functional in an actual war, and that the last 50 years of battleship design had been, in retrospect, a bit silly.

In contrast, the sky becoming busy. While zeppelins never fulfilled their projected potential, airplanes turned out to be pretty cool. The invention of a mechanical synchronizer allowed a propeller plane to shoot between the blades of its spinning propeller, making dogfights and strafing runs feasible, and bombers were used by both sides. The Germans broke another norm -- this one, arguably, forbidden by the The Hague Convention of 1899 -- when it started aerial bombing. They used first zeppelins, and then later Gothas and Giants (confusingly, the Giants, while definitely airplanes, are properly known as Zeppelin-Staakens) to bomb civilian targets, including London.

Aerial defense was quickly developed, and the basic technologies developed here would remain essentially unchanged up to WWII (and WWII's biggest improvement would be the invention of radar). The idea of paratroopers and airdrops were trialed, but barely used; the pioneering work done now would eventually be useful in WWII.

While not a new technology in the same way as some of the other innovations listed, the railway also deserves a mention. With the advent of widespread railways across Europe, troop movement became quicker and easier by orders of magnitude. Troops could be deployed in a matter of hours rather than days, and instead of being worn out by a long march, they would be well rested and ready to start digging some trenches.

A number of other technologies appeared around this time, and were useful in the war effort; many inventions owe their existence or their popularity to the war. These include air control (supported by advances in radio), daylight saving time, the flame thrower, tracer bullets, the aircraft carrier, the mobile x-ray unit, stainless steel, and cellucotton bandages. Of these, radio stands out as a major beneficiary of the war, although during the war itself a significant portion of communication was still done by telegraph wires rolled out across the fields.

All in all, it was a bad deal for humanity, and no one wanted to do it again. But they would.

World War I was the first war of any major size after the Industrial Revolution. It was a war of artillery, attrition, industrial capacity, and economic power. The Germans opened the Western Front in August 1914 with the Schleiffen Plan. The plan was to sweep through Belgium and Holland in an encircling movement that was to have the 'Last solder's arm brushing the sea'. The General in command of the German Army, Helmuth Von Moltke, altered the plan to only violate the neutrality of Belgium.

The Germans quickly stomped through Belgium. However, there was stiff civilian resistance, leading to the policy that for every German soldier killed 10 civilians were to be lined up and summarily shot. That order provided excellent propaganda for the allied nations, giving them a cause that could be used to rally the troops.

The German offensive ground to a halt 22 miles to the west of Paris, quite short of the plan's final objective. After the plan ground to a halt, the battle lines stabilized into a front that was virtually locked into place in Northern France.

On the Eastern Front... As soon as the Germans Attacked Belgium, the Russians attacked eastern Germany, in the area where Poland is today. The Russian General Staff was not organized, and in fact, several of the generals were not on speaking terms. As a direct result the Russian infantry was incompetently lead. They were also poorly equiped, and barely trained. The russians managed to entangle many German regiments until 1917 when the Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown. They surrendered to Germany in 1917, at a place called Brest-Livtosk.

The Austro-Hungarians were the worst equiped after Russia, and in order for them to stay in the war until 1918 the Germans had to run their army. They collapsed in Revolt in October 1918.

The Germans sued for peace on October 4, 1918. It took several weeks to agree on an armistice date and time, which was finally set to begin at 11:00 A.M. on November 11, 1918.

This is not an exhaustive description of war, merely a brief overview. If you want something detailed, see:
World War I: A Short History 2ed. by Michael J. Lyons ISBN: 0130205516

Contrary to popular belief (and a now-removed earlier writeup), trench warfare was not new in World War I. It had appeared before, most notably during the Russo-Japanese War. In fact, one of the enormous mysteries of World War I is how so many militaries and so many people with so much information on how the weapons and tactics worked could get their predictions on what the war would look like so very wrong. Quick example: The machine gun, which in fact offers a large advantage to the defense because of its ability to allow fewer troops to put out the same firepower and because of its weight and the weight of its ammo, was thought instead to offer an advantage to the attacker. As a result, the tactic of 'charge the line,' it was thought, would in fact increase the amount of firepower that the attacker could bring to bear against the enemy. For some reason, no one made the next step of saying 'but the defender can have cover, and unlimited ammo, and can now engage hundreds of targets instead of only a few.'

Why? There are various answers. A lot have to do with nationalism, a 'culture of the offensive' and the evolution of doctrine before the war. This war was one of the first wars fought steeped in ideological nationalism.

One point on the beginning of The Great War. The assassination of the Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand (by accident, no less -Gavrilo Princip had given up his original plan after the Archduke's driver took a wrong turn, missing the assassin's intended ambush but later chancing to cross his path in the store where he'd gone to sulk) had very little direct result. Austria-Hungary demanded the extradition of Princip and generally blamed the government of Serbia for the assassin's actions. When Serbia refused or was unable to produce Princip, Austria-Hungary threatened war to punish the Serbs. This is when Russia became involved. Much as they did in the 1999 Kosovo conflict, the Russian government felt compelled to come to the aid of their Slavic brothers, and threatened Austria-Hungary with war in the east if they attacked Serbia. This is where stupidity and pig-headedness come into play.

  • Pig-headedness, Part 1 - Pan-Slavism as well as the desire to increase his power and influence in Europe induced the Czar to press his case, making a potentially negligible Balkan conflict into a wider east-European war.
  • Stupidity - The Hapsburg monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was collapsing from the lethal combination of republicanism in Europe and nationalism among its many minorities, who together far outweighed the "majority" Austrians and Hungarians, appealed to the German Kaiser -what would he do if they should be attacked by Russia? They were unable to defend themselves in that case. The Kaiser, perhaps not realizing the gravity of the situation, or perhaps simply feeling that the mere threat of war with Germany would make the Russians back down (either possibility requires blithering idiocy on his part), assured the Austrians that Germany would back them.
  • Pig-Headedness, Part 2 - The Czar, knowing now that Germany would honor its pledge to defend Austria-Hungary, and that this large-scale war would activate the network of mutual defense treaties among the big countries of Europe (tantamount to "going nuclear" in Cold War parlance) attacked anyway. The rest, as they say, is history.

There is a Pig-headedness, Part 3 which involves France insisting upon blaming Germany for the war after the fact, (they were really out to get revenge for their defeat in the 1871 Franco-Prussian War) and demanding the harsh provisions of the Treaty of Versailles which did more than any other single historical event to cause the Great Depression, the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War, but that's another node...

One: The Beginnings

Europe had been relatively peaceful since the early part of the 19th century, interrupted only by some Prussian aggression during German unification (Thanks to ivan4 for the correction). After Napoleon, Europe had enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity. Significant developments during this time were the rise of a unified Germany (and Italy), and the (slight) weakening of the power of the ancient monarchic dynasties of Europe. Both Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire experienced rebellion and a weakening of central government. These empires ruled over many ethnic groups and we know how much trouble that can cause. Austria's main problem were its Slavic states to the south.

Germany was unified by a brilliant man named Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck made a number of intelligent moves and succeeded in establishing an alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy, known as the Triple Alliance. He also attempted to form an alliance with the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary (The Three Emperor's League), in an effort to stave off an alliance between Germany's enemies France and Russia, but the league was not as much of a success as the Triple Alliance.

After Bismarck's dismissal a number of bad policy moves were made. Germany, which lay at the centre of Europe, had an advantage because, using its efficient railroads, it could swing its troops from one front to another quickly, and was at a disadvantage for the same reason--a combined attack on both fronts might squeeze it like a nutcracker. That was why Bismarck tried to stave off a Franco-Russian alliance, but his less wise successors did not succeed in this. France, since the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, had borne the Germans a grudge, both for the humiliation they (the French) suffered and for the capture of the border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Europe gradually split into two camps. One one side there were the Central Powers, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy. On the other side were Russia and France. Britain was not, strictly speaking, allied with France, but they had an entente (understanding). Russia also saw itself as the protector of all Slavic nations, including Serbia, which had previously been an Austro-Hungarian province but was now an independent nation.

By 1900 the stage was set for a war like Europe had never seen. A number of small conflicts in the decade from 1900 to 1910 nearly sent Europe spiralling into war but the affair blew over each time.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was planning to tour Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was still an Austrian province. He favoured bringing Bosnia and the other Slavic states into the empire at the same level as Austria-Hungary. This made him popular with most of the people of Bosnia, but put him on the hit list of the Serbian radicals who favoured a Slavic state to the south. They were afraid that a moderate ruler would cause their platform to lose its appeal. One particular group of radicals, The Black Hand, decided to assassinate the Archduke.

During the Archduke's first drive through the streets of Sarajevo, a bomb was tossed into his car. Somehow, (reports are not conclusive) the bomb was ejected from the car, wounding several, but leaving Ferdinand unharmed. He was naturally not in the best of moods when he met Oskar Potiorek, Governor of Bosnia, but was informed that 'Bosnians never attempt assassination twice in one day'. After some time, the Archduke regained his composure, and he and his wife, Sophie von Chotkovato, left. The Archduke made a slight change of plans (driving down the Appel Quay to the Hospital), and the road that he was supposed to take was still unblocked, so the leading car in the motorcade turned, with the Archduke's car following. However, the error was pointed out, and the driver slowed and stopped. Before the driver could reverse, Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Black Hand, stepped out of the crowd and fired, shooting and killing Franz Ferdinand and his wife and setting Europe on the path to war.

Wow. Really melodramatic, eh?

Two: Austria and Serbia

As soon as Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated, telegrams were dispatched all over Europe. Europe waited for the outcome, an outcome that could plunge Europe into the worst war the world had ever seen.

The Chief of Staff of the Austrian army, Conrad von Hotzendorff, advocated quickly sending the Austrian military into Serbia to teach the Serbs a lesson, despite the show of sympathy from Belgrade and a promise to crack down on terrorists. However, he was informed that his proposal was not feasable -- the Austrian military had to be mobilised (calling up reserves, starting a war economy, etc.) Moreover, the Austrian Foreign Minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, advocated caution for many reasons, not the least of which were Russia's ties to Serbia. Russia had a huge army, but it was a paper army, as the war would soon show. All of Europe believed that Austria should deal harshly and quickly with Serbia... but how harshly? That was the question facing the Austrian government. And in a fateful move, they turned to their greatest ally, Germany, for help.

At this time, a representative of the German Foreign Office, Victor Naumann, basically gave Austria carte blanche. However, the German Ambassador, Heinrich von Tschirschky, advocated moderation. The Germans at this time were very sure of themselves. Germany had, indisputably, the greatest land army in Europe. With such a power backing them, it is no wonder that the Austrians did not excercise as much caution as they should have.

Finally, Austria decided to be firm. They prepared a careful ultimatum that demanded such outrageous concessions from Serbia that it was sure to be rejected by the Serbian government, thus giving the Austrians an excuse for war. At 18:00, July 23, 1914, the ultimatum was delivered by telegram, just hours after the French prime minister had left Russia. This was, of course, exactly what the hawkish Austrians (like Conrad) had planned.

Serbia was astonishingly submissive to Austrian demands. They only balked on the issue of having Serbian nationals tried by Austrian courts, which was a grave violation of international law. This was not, of course, what Conrad wanted. However, just to be sure, Serbia mobilised her troops on the 25th of July, ignoring the adage 'Mobilisation means war'. Hitting upon this as an excuse, Austria followed suit, with Brechtold getting the Emperor's signature by telling him that the Serbs were actually attacking. Meanwhile, the French prime minister was informed of the ultimatum aboard his ship. Russia, England and France started taking precautions for the coming war. At 11:00, July 28th, Austria declared war on Serbia, beginning The Great War of Europe, perhaps the most nationalistic war of all time and the first modern mechanised war. Over the next few days, July 30th to August 1st, Russia, France and Germany all mobilised.

Three: The Germans Attack

On July 31st, 1914, Germany issued an ultimatum to Russia (boy, this way seems full of ultimatums, doesn't it?). Desist or surrender. Germany demanded that Russia demobilise in 12 hours, or Germany would attack. After Russia's expected refusal, Germany mobilised and declared war on Russia on August 1st, 1914. The Germans had at first intended to strike Russia first, but they later decided to adopt the plan of Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the Great General Staff until 1906. The plan called for 10 divisions on the Eastern front and 8 attacking Verdun. Later, Helmuth von Moltke, Schlieffen's successor, modified the Schlieffen plan by strengthening the left wing. Contrary to many sources, Moltke did not significantly weaken the right wing. Stated very simply, the objective of the Schlieffen Plan was to crush France before Russia could mobilise, thus allowing the Germans to take their foes on one by one. An important modification of Moltke's was that Germany would now only violate the neutrality of Belgium (by Schlieffen's original plan, Germany would also have to invade the Netherlands). Many blame Moltke for Germany's defeat. Indeed, even Kaiser Wilhelm I (of Germany) became displeased with Moltke and replaced him with Erich von Falkenhayn later in the war.

Belgium mobilised on the same day as Germany. Germany attacked Luxembourg on August 2nd, and received neutral Belgium's declaration that they would not allow the the passage of German troops through Belgium. On August 4th, after Germany crossed the Meuse and invaded Belgium in accordance with the modified Schlieffen plan, Britain declared war on Germany and her ally, Austria-Hungary. Germany quickly managed to bring seven armies to bear on the western front and one on the eastern front (remember the Schlieffen Plan). However, all did not go as expected. Russia mobilised more quickly than anticipated and brought two armies to bear on the eastern front. On August 15th, Austria-Hungary finally invaded Serbia. Before that, on August 14th, the British Expeditionary Force, or BEF landed in France under the command of Sir John French. From the 22nd to the 25th, the French were driven back by the advancing Germans to the French fortified line east of Verdun. At Mons, the heavily outnumbered BEF was forced to retreat to the Marne (not to the ocean, as French Commander in Chief Joffre wanted them to do). Meanwhile, Joffre created the French Sixth Army, stationed in Paris. The Germans wheeled into France in a giant arc, the Second Army pausing momentarily at Guise.

The French Sixth Army, in Paris, attacked the advancing German First Army on September 5th. This began the Battle of the Marne (technically the first -- there were two others of the same name). The French were spared only by the arrival of reinforcements by Paris taxis. The German First Army dispatched two corps to meet the French attack, creating a division between the First and Second Armies. The French Fifth Army and the BEF moved into this gap, separating the two German armies. The German Command, afraid that they might lose the battle, ordered the retreat of the German First and Second Armies to the Aisne before they were cut off. The Marne dashed German hopes for a quick end to the war but did not seriously damage the German plan, as their retreat was successful. The war was about to be prolonged.

Four: The Eastern Front

The Goeben and the Breslau

The Goeben was Germany's greatest battle cruiser during World War I. It, along with a smaller ship, the Breslau were stationed in the Mediterranean under the command of Admiral Wilhelm Souchon. In August of 1913(*), the two ships began the attack of the coast of French Algiers. However, a few days later, he received a change of plan. His new assignment: To sail to the Ottoman Empire and convince the goverment to join the Central Powers. However, before Souchon had completed his assignment, the British battleships Indomitable and Indefatigable appeared on the scene. The Goeben and Breslau managed to outsail them, despite the Goeben experiencing engine trouble. The Germans landed in neutral Italy and were given a day to refuel. Meanwhile, the British, not entering Italian waters, blocked off the Germans' escape route. However, in doing so, they left the path to Constantinople wide open since they believed that the Germans would not sail into Ottoman harbours, not yet having been given permission to enter.

After the 24 hours were up, the Germans made a dash for it, heading towards Turkey. They were spotted by the British light cruiser, the Gloucester. Vice-Admiral Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne, in charge of the British fleet, was notified of this unforseen turn of events. The Gloucester pursued the Germans, but to no avail. However, while the Germans were passing Greece, four more British ships commanded by Admiral E. C. Troubridge took up the chase. While these ships were faster, the British decided that it would be impossible to get to the Goeben before that ship's superior artillery defeated them. The German ships, making it to Constantinople, gained entry and after negotiations, agreed to sell the Ottomans the Goeben and Breslau, now renamed the Yavuz Sultan Selim and the Midili, respectively. (Can anyone provide a translation for these?) Souchon now became the commander-in-chief of the Ottoman navy. Souchon's first act as an Ottoman soldier was to bomb the Russian cities of Odessa and Sebastopol. On October 30, 1914, Turkey became the third Central Power.


In August of 1914, General Alexander Samsonov became Commander of the Russian Second Army, in charge of the invasion of East Prussia. His initial attack against the German Eigth Army caused it to retreat and led to General Maximilian Prittwitz's dismissal. His replacements were General Paul von Hindenburg (of Hindenburg Line fame) and General Erich Ludendorff. On the 22nd they attacked the Russian Second Army at Tannenburg and in 7 days had it surrounded. After an unsuccessful retreat, Samsanov commited suicide. Only 10,000 of 150,000 Russian soldiers managed to escape.

The Brusilov Offensive

In April of 1916, General Aleksei A. Brusilov was made one of the three Russian Generals directly responsible to Tsar Nicholas II. He was given permission to begin an offensive to capture the strategically important Austro-Hungarian city of Kovel. The offensive involved four different armies, with the westward front launching the main attack. On June 4, 1916, the Russians attacked, breaking through the lines of the surprised Austro-Hungarians. After gaining several objectives, including capturing the city of Lutsk, the Russians were seized by a fit of anxiety and hesitated, thus losing the opportunity to capture Kovel. After a German counterattack, the Russians ended the offensive with much more territory than they had before, but still not having achieved their original aims.

More to come (maybe):

Part Five: The Gallipoli Campaign
Part Six: The War at Sea
Part Seven: The War in France
Part Eight: Verdun
Part Nine: Marne
Part Ten: The End for the Germans
Part Eleven: The Finale

One of the most eloquent summaries of the causes of the First World War and all of it's unfathomable, horrific madnesses was put forth in a comedy. The below excerpt is probably the most poignant, and most well remembered scene of all of the Blackadder episodes. The episode as a whole is probably one of the greatest anti-war televisual moments, this scene in particular shows how the men who would die had no idea why they would be dying, in a war that could not by any stretch of the imagination be justified or rationalised. Which is why Edmund cannot dispute Baldrick's "personal" interpretation of the cause of the war, for it could only ever equal the madness of the truth. In the end it all boils down to one word. Please read on :

Edmund: Do you mean "How did the war start?"

Baldrick: Yeah.

George: The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire- building.

Edmund: George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganiki. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front.

George: Oh, no, sir, absolutely not. (aside, to Baldrick) Mad as a bicycle!

Baldrick: I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich 'cause he was hungry.

Edmund: I think you mean it started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary got shot.

Baldrick: Nah, there was definitely an ostrich involved, sir.

Edmund: Well, possibly. But the real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort not to have a war.

George: By Gum! this is interesting; I always loved history -- The Battle of Hastings, Henry VIII and his six knives, all that.

Edmund: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way there could never be a war.

Baldrick: But, this is a sort of a war, isn't it, sir?

Edmund: Yes, that's right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.

George: What was that, sir?

Edmund: It was bollocks.

Baldrick: So the poor old ostrich died for nothing.

Still brings a tear to the eye, the above excerpt is from a transcript of the last episode "GoodByeee" from "Blackadder Goes Forth" series, all copyright belongs to the BBC.

"Fighting for peace is like fucking for chastity." - anonymous

The irony of the First World War
It is ironic that Germany, the aggressors of the First World War, should remain unscathed in many respects, contemporaneous to the War's end. The question of who the real victims were after the First World War led to several realisations concerning the point of it all, the origin of it and most importantly who was to blame overall. Many parts of France were completely devastated over the war's course and when compared to Germany's unentered borders it becomes clear as to who actually suffered more overall. The Germans, who had undergone a somewhat trivial defeat, could in many ways nurture this. They could retain a sense of German nationalism that would damage French pride further and perhaps more intensely than the horrific physical damage ever could. The bitterness that this situation was enveloped in was the motivation behind a guilt clause in the peace treaties. The armistice of November 11 1918 was a "honourable peace" . This post-armistice peace brought with it a sentiment that would hang over Germany throughout the peace treaties: "hang the Kaiser and make Germany pay!" (Lambert J 1962).

The Peace Conference
The peace conference that followed the armistice is an example of the bitterness held towards the defeated states, as they were not invited to participate in negotiations whatsoever. Furthermore, the defeated states were only presented with the conditions of a given treaty when it came time for them to sign it. This is an aspect of the entire scenario that clearly reflects the bitterness the victors had for the defeated states. There were four individuals that shone out at the peace conference: Prime Minister Lloyd George of Britain, Premier Clemenceau of France, Prime Minister Orlando of Italy and President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, who are known collectively as the "big four". The opinions of these nations are distinguishable from the outcome of the treaties, and so it is fair to assume that they were all detrimentally bitter towards and mistrustful of Germany.

Who were the 'big four?'
Clemenceau was an old man of eighty years who had seen Germany invade France in the past and was bitterly determined to get revenge and secure a French dominance over them through the treaties. Lloyd George was aiming for a "just" peace that would satisfy most and further establish Great Britain as a world power. Wilson was an idealist who sought peace and fair resolution through the treaties, however he was somewhat ignorant to the intricacies of European politics . Wilson's dream to start the "League of Nations" was a majestic idea (although he did not conceive the League of Nations himself) in theory and in many instances in practice. The idea was to create an atmosphere in which world leaders could sort out their differences and negotiate without war, however bitterness prevented Germany from receiving a seat in the beginning. Mistrust among nations prevented the League of Nations from being completely effective. For instance, the League of Nations was deemed capable of enforcing disarmament but this was soon proven as an impossibility because the nations did not trust each other to disarm truthfully or effectively. The peace treaties themselves also reflected mistrust between the major European nations.

What other treaties were there besides the treaty of Versailles?
There were several peace treaties in succession between 1919 and 1920. There was the Versailles treaty with Germany and Saint Germain with Austria in 1919, and then Trianon with Hungary and Sevres with Turkey in 1920. German losses were huge; their European territory was reduced by one eighth, they were made to accept full responsibility for the war and pay disastrous reparations that led them in to debt and inflation. To hurt German pride further, the German army was reduced to 100 000 men, the Rhineland was demilitarised and their navy and many trading ships were confiscated, leaving them completely volatile and unprotected. In addition to this, no other country underwent disarmament, which was quite contrary to Wilson's 14 points, the apparent basis for the League of Nations. The bitter French had gotten what they wanted and Germany was reduced to the mercy of the countries to which it was to repay monies.

"Make Germany Pay!"
Reparations by Germany were in huge amounts. The first belongings Germany had to sacrifice for payment were merchant ships, rolling stock and raw materials, all under the pretext of restoring Allied industries. The payments that followed this, which were handled by the Reparations Commission (a separate organisation from the League of Nations), were scaled down to £6.3 billion (Lambert J 1962), which was an incredibly huge amount of money even for a previously prosperous nation such as Germany. The fact that this amount of money was insisted on and forced out of Germany demonstrates bitterness to the fullest extent; when Germany said they could not pay France and Belgium occupied the Ruhr, a German military capital, until they paid. To understand French bitterness we must note that a portion of France was reduced to ashes during the war and there was not a single part of Germany that was entered, let alone fired upon. The French looked at Germany as not only the aggressors of the war, but also the thieves of French dignity and Pride. Revenge, in their eyes, must have been more important than any "just" peace could have been, and the protection and betterment of France went hand in hand with this vengeful desire.

Bitterness and Mistrust
France, through the treaties, had sealed themselves from Germany, and they strengthened this seal by forming alliances with Poland and Czechoslovakia. It was clear that Germany was not to be trusted whatsoever, and the setup of these alliances against Germany and its allies suggests this further. Looking at the barrier of countries around Germany is impressive to say the least, as not only were Germany surrounded but it gave ample opportunity for the Allies to annex German colonies and seal Germany off further. However, instead of annexing all of Germany's colonies outright, they were mandated and leadership was passed over to, or adopted by, the League of Nations. This was yet another blow to German pride; their country was in harsh debt, they were being made to accept complete responsibility for a two-sided war and they were losing their most valuable resource, land. The bitter victors of the war were getting what most of them wanted, and Germany was truly paying the price.

In summary
Although German pride was hurt and they were pushed in to a deep economical slum, they rose back up. This was the mistrustful fear that the allies shared; by making Germany pay reparations they had to use foreign aid and loans, and this would give Germany ample opportunity to regain some of the power they had lost. In a matter of years, Germany did see remarkable improvements, and the allied fear was renewed. But the dark cloud that the reparations brought showed the bitterness flowing between Germany and their persecutors, and the fact that they were dealt out consistently demonstrates the desire that was ever present, to simply grind Germany down. The sentiment of the war was carried over to the peace negotiations under the guise of Wilson's fourteen points. The peace that these points preached helped form the League of Nations, a panel which represented those touched by the war and other powers throughout the world, but mainly those who fought hardest in it such as Britain and France. It is then no wonder that with all the bitter sentiments floating around at the War's end that the League of Nations was so bitterly bent on revenge. It is evident from the entire scenario that a quiet surrender does not guarantee sanctuary from discrimination and finger pointing, and that past occurrences and grievances influence people's opinions more than any acceptance of guilt. Germany were made to accept responsibility, however the old saying "it takes two to tango" reigns true in the Peace Treaties, even though it was not acknowledged by them. The peace treaties themselves only served as a representation of different nations views. As the views of these nations were representative of the public and the public were subjected to four years of propaganda, their opinions on Germany are likely to have been bitter and mistrustful. It is then no wonder that the Peace Treaties reflected bitterness and mistrust, as most of the world shared the views that the Treaties represented.

Written Sources:

Hagan, J (1979) Modern History and it's themes Langman Cheshire: Melbourne
Shaw, A (1977) Modern World History Melbourne, Lengman Cheshire
Mowat, L. (Univ. of North Wales) (ed) (1968) The Shifting Balance of World Forces in "The New Cambridge Modern History Volume XII: Second edition" University Press, Cambridge
Lambert, J (1962) Handbook of Modern History Book Two Cheshire: Melbourne

The historigraphy of the Great War has mainly been concerned with establishing two things - responsibility and contingency. Who is to blame for the crisis, and why did it become such a large crisis at all?

The Treaty of Versailles, as is well known, was in no doubt whatsoever about who to blame: Germany was to take full responsibility for all damages done during the war, and its 'war guilt' was established absolutely. This was supposed to act as a legal basis for reparation payments. The German public, though, found this hard to swallow - like the governments of all other belligerent nations, their's had stressed the defensive nature of their actions throughout the war. Each government had published a book of official documents when war broke out to try and prove to their populations that they weren't to blame. These collections were, of course, highly selective - but their official nature gave them an air of objectivity.

After the war, governments again published document collections. Germany published forty volumes of documents entitled Die Grosse Politik des Europäischen Kabinette (The High Politics of the European Cabinets), Britain eleven volumes of British Documents on the Origins of War, Austria Österreich-Ungarns Aussenpolitik von der Bosnischen Krise 1908 bis zum Kreigsausbruch 1914 (Austria-Hungary's foreign policy from the Bosnian Crisis 1908 until the outbreak of war 1914) in nine volumes, the Soviet Union five volumes of International Relations in the Age of Imperialism and France Documents Diplomatiques Français. France's document collection came too late to impact the first wave of histories, however.

The first wave of histories was mostly concerned with making the Treaty of Versailles look much too harsh. David Lloyd George began his memoirs by saying no-one had wanted war in 1914, and Sidney Bradshaw Fay, in his Origins of the World War (1929) blamed the war on latent structural factors within the old system - he placed the blame on impersonal isms, such as nationalism and imperialism. The Germans were, of course, glad to accept this interpretation (helped along by the propaganda department set up almost immediately after the war by their government) and the general consensus in Britain after the general desire for revenge had gone was that the war had been 'fated'. The governments had muddled into war and there was collective responsibility.

Some anti-revisionists did not accept this thesis, however. Bernadotte Schmitt, in his The Coming of War (1930) blamed the Central Powers for putting the old system of alliances to the test and risking general war in doing so. This interpretation acknowledged structural factors but also placed blame squarely on the shoulders of the Central Powers. Pierre Renouvin, writing in 1925, had reached a similar conclusion - French historigraphy, though, was concerned with justifying the reparation payments that they were extracting from Germany. Lenin, of course, had his own thesis, laid out in Imperialism: the highest stage of Capitalism as early as 1916 - this interpretation said that capitalism was bound to lead to general war in a battle for finite resources between governments.

So the field remained until after World War II, an even more destructive and terrible event which again shook Europe to its core. This time the militaristic expansionism of Germany could not be denied, and it became tempting for some historians to claim that aggressiveness was part of the German national character. West German historians saw National Socialism as an aberration, a 'blip' in their history which did not bear comparing to World War I. West German historiography continued to claim that the Great War was not the fault of anyone, that it had been inevitable - and outrage from other parts of the West was perhaps not as strong as it might have been, because West Germany was needed as an ally in the Cold War. In East Germany, the capitalist West was still blamed for the war.

One of the timeless classics of World War I history was written around this time, by Luigi Albertini. In 1942 - 43 he had written Le origini della guerra del 1914, which received an English translation in 1952 - 57 as The Origins of the First World War. This book has truly stood the test of time, and many scholars seeking originality go back to this book and find Albertini already made their point, or implied it. Albertini said Germany had primary responsibility for starting the general war, but had only wanted a local one. Moral outrage against this idea was now diminishing, but it was by no means the consensus.

A German, Fritz Fischer, would supply the next controversy. Griff nach der Weltmacht (1961) is a dense piece of history written in impenetrable Germanic style, but an explosive one. Fischer claimed that Germany had deliberately sought the war to annex territories - it had believed it could win the war and willfully sought it. This thesis saw a continuity over eighty years of German history, in which the nation was warlike and had Imperial prententions. Fischer was subjected to personal threats and some slightly more serious academic scrutiny - he was accused of reading history backwards, seeing Imperial Germany as a mere prelude to Nazi Germany. Gerhard Ritter responded, saying Germany had no plan for world domination. He claimed Germany acted defensively, trying to defend Austria-Hungary. He said the realisation that general war was going to break out came too late and German's war planners were too rigid and inflexible to stop it. This places some blame on German policy, essentially accusing it of being incompetent, but not too much blame.

Fischer's thesis, though, was gaining a large amount of support abroad. He was accused of being unpatriotic for digging up his country's past during a time when it was trying to re-integate itself with the West, but he continued all the same. Fischer's next book was more hotly contested - published in 1969 and entitled Krieg der Illusionen (The War of Illusions), it claimed Germany had sought a Pax Germanica over the entire of Europe. Furthermore, it had been planning this from as early as 1912! In seeking war it was said Germany was trying to deflect domestic disquiet abroad - the so-called "primacy of domestic policy", or den primat der Innenpolitik. This part of Fischer's thesis is now mostly rejected, as is much of his second book: but the conclusions of the first remain widely accepted.

Fischer, in seeking historical truth, had been willing to go against the wishes of his countrymen - when the Allies opened the German archives after the end of World War II, he had gone in to investigate. More archives were opened in the 1960s and now distance was finally starting to set in - Fischer's thesis is still widely supported, but some subtle alterations are being made. For instance, it is now thought blame should be spread a little wider, perhaps to Austria-Hungary as well (which is accused of risking a general war by wanting a local one). Blame should not be focused entirely on Berlin, but Germany was not innocent - she was the most willing to risk general war.

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