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World War I [The Great War]

The shots that rang out on the streets of Sarajevo in June 1914 changed the world. A young Serbian assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. In retaliation, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Decades of simmering nationalistic hostilities quickly were unleashed. The principal belligerents on one side were Austria-Hungary and Germany, on the other, Britain, France, Russia, and, in 1917, the United States. Surpassing in scale all previous military conflicts, it was called simply "The Great War" -- until a war on a vastly greater scale erupted two decades later, whereupon it was demoted to simply the first of the World Wars.

On 28 June 1914 the Austro-Hungarian successor to the throne, Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated by a member of a band of Serbian conspirators. On 01 August 1914 war errupted between Central Powers [Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire] and the Entente [France, Belgium, Great Britain, Italy, Russia and Serbia].

The War was caused in part by a military doomsday machine, devised by war planners who lacked firm political guidance. General war came about because statesmen lost control over their military machines during an international confrontation. Before the War, Germany's military leaders faced the difficult strategic problem of preparing for a two-front war. Their solution was to develop an audacious strategy known as the Schlieffen Plan. In an attempt to obtain a quick military decision, Germany employed the Schlieffen Plan at the War's outbreak. When this quick decision failed to occur, Germany's leaders found themselves embroiled in a grinding war of attrition against a powerful coalition of opposing states.

The Prussian example of large cadre and reservist forces overwhelming professional armies had convinced other European governments that they must develop mass armies of reservists. European general staffs therefore produced elaborate plans to mobilize and deploy such reserves by railroad at the outbreak of war. As a result of these efforts, by 1900, Germany had only 545,000 men on active duty but a total wartime strength of 3,013,000; France had 544,450 men in peacetime and 4,660,000 in war; and Russia could mobilize over 4,000,000 from a peacetime strength of 896,000.

No one believed that a war that mobilized the entire manpower of a nation could go on for more than a few months. War in 1914 meant that an entire economy halted while the reserves mobilized and fought. Under such circumstances, societies and economies would collapse if the war dragged on. This belief in a short war determined many of the tactical expectations of European soldiers. With few exceptions, they did not anticipate assaulting, prepared fortifications across open ground. Instead, most soldiers envisaged a series of meeting engagements or encounter battles.

In practice, however, the density of forces along the French, German, and Belgian frontiers in 1914 was so great that anyone seeking to maneuver to the flank was likely to encounter another unit, either friendly or enemy.

World War I, "the Great War," lasted from 1914 through 1918. The Western Front was stalemated by static trench warfare, in which hundreds of thousands of men died in senseless attacks, from the beginning of the war until the armistice of November 1918.

The First World War saw force used as a bludgeon rather than as Bismarck's precise instrument of policy. It was a conflict fought on an unprecedented scale, whose results bore little relation to its original purposes. Major developments in industrial capabilities, transportation, communications and weaponry vastly enlarged the geographic scale of war, yet stifled tactical and strategic innovation. Military and political leaders groped for ways to adapt to new conditions, incorporate new technology, restore decisiveness to the battlefield, and bring costs and benefits into proportion.

The Great War placed hitherto unimagined strain on the economic and social fabric of the warring states. War plans had been founded on the expectation of a short, decisive Bismarckian conflict. Instead, the warring powers found themselves in a bloody stalemate along hundreds of miles of static battle lines. Unwilling and unable to alter their political objectives, participants resigned themselves to a lengthy war of attrition. Leaders on both sides recognized that as compromise became less and less acceptable, complete collapse was the probable outcome for the losing governments.

Britain employed its sea power to defeat Germany through a blockade. With the exception of submarines, the German fleet spent most of the war in port as a "fleet-in-being" -- holding down a portion of the Royal Navy battle fleet. The German High Seas Fleet finally ventured out at the end of May 1916 to battle the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet, but neither side scored a clear victory. At battle's end, each fleet had lost several ships, but the British suffered more heavily in tonnage, by almost double. As late as 1918 the Grand Fleet deployed the bulk of its assets to escort convoys to Norway. The German decision to embark on an all-out submarine offensive to defeat Britain proved to be short-sighted. The Lusitania was torpedoed on 07 May 1915 with 1200 lives lost; 139 Americans were among them. By using submarines in this way, Germany's leaders eventually provoked a war with the United States.

The German Army first used chlorine gas against the French Army at Ypres on 15 April 1915. Both sides found that phosgene was more effective than chlorine, and by the end of the Great War nearly 100,000 soldiers had been killed by poison gas, and over ten times that number injured.

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Page last modified: 21-10-2017 19:08:32 ZULU