WORLD WAR I
The signing of the Armistice (truce) ending World War I [WW1]
11 a.m. on November 11, 1918 (“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of
the eleventh month”).
“The Great War”: the original name given the 1914-1918
conflict by those who had lived through it.
Armistice Day: American holiday commemorating the event;
the name was later changed to Veterans’ Day.
World War I (or the First World War): name given the 1914-1918
conflict following the even greater war of 1939-1945.
Geographical expanse of the conflict: it was primarily a European War;
therefore, not as widespread as World War II.
The three major fronts were all European.
Western Front: the area of fighting between northern France and Germany
Eastern Front: much longer front stretching across much
of eastern Europe
Italian Front: northeastern Italy and the Balkans; sometimes
referred to as "the forgotten front."
Nevertheless, fighting also took place in the Near East, Africa, and
Asia. German submarines took the sea war to most of the earth’s oceans.
And before it ended, most of the western hemisphere had followed the American
lead and come in on the side of the Allies.
“The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century”: the
best visual treatment of the conflict joint produced by the BBC and American
public television; its summary of the war’s significance is right on the
mark. “It colored everything that came before; and shadowed everything
Echoes of the conflict in the modern world:
1. Balkan Crisis of the 1990s
2. The Mideastern situation including the recent wars against Iraq
“The powder keg of Europe”: nickname in the pre-World
War I period for Europe’s most turbulent trouble spot, the Balkan Peninsula;
recognized that if a general European war were to break out, it was likely
to break out there.
The event in the Balkans that ultimately sparked the conflict:
assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife,
Sophia on June 28, 1914 during their visit to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo,
by a serb patriot named Gavrilo Princeps.
Selected “Statistics” of the Great War:
In the 4 years and 3 months it lasted, WW1 produced at least
8,500,000 (perhaps as many as 10,000,000) battle deaths.
During the 1914 campaign (from the beginning of August-early December),
losses on the Western Front alone totalled over a million.
During four days in August, 1914, the French army lost 40,000 men,
including 27,000 on August 22, the bloodiest single day in French military
In late August and early September of 1914, the Germans won the battle
of Tannenberg, their greatest victory of the war, in which they inflicted
upon the Russians more than 30,000 casualties, and took over 100,000 prisoners.
In 1916, almost certainly the worst year in the history of conventional
warfare, the Allies fought the Germans in two battles which still ranks
as the longest and bloodiest in human history:
1. Battle of Verdun: (French vrs. Germans); over
five months and 700,000 casualties.
2. Battle of the Somme (British vrs. Germans) almost as long
as Verdun; 600,000 casualties.
July 1, 1916: the first day of battle on the Somme was bloodiest day
in the history of conventional warfare. The British alone lost 20,000
dead and 40,000 wounded for a total of 60,000 casualties.
In addition to the military casualties, well over 10,000,000 non-combattants
had died, some from military action, but many others from starvation or
disease. And there would be many other casualties and deaths to follow,
in the various revolutionary struggles and civil wars, that grew out of
the larger conflict.
Despite these losses, for most of the First World War, a stalemate
prevailed along the Western Front. The gains and losses of real estate
could usually be measured in hundreds or at most thousands of yards.
Chariots of Fire: academy award winning film, the opening scene
shows Oxford University immediately after the war with numerous wounded
and crippled veterans who had returned to take up the thread of their lives.
Russian Revolution: major revolutionary struggle growing
out of World War I; gave rise to a civil war that continued long after
the larger war had ended.
Flu Epidemic of 1918-1920: the greatest outbreak of disease
associated with World War I, it first appeared in the last year of the
war and had a major effect on Europe where the population’s resistance
was already weakened by years of hunger. Historians estimate that
the flu epidemic carried off some 20 million victims world-wide.
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Famine, War, Disease,
and Death. A famous New Testament reference to the four leading forces
that often combine to threat human existence.
(1) WW1 marked the beginning of the end of a domination that
Europe had exercised for centuries over the rest of the world. By weakening
Europe it set the stage for decolonization,one of the twentieth century’s
most significant political movements.
(2) WW1 brought down four of the great powers of the world and the
ancient dynasties that ruled them for centuries:
Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary
Ottoman Dynasty of the Ottoman Turkish Empire
Hohenzollerns of Germany
Romanovs of Russia
(3) WW1 gave rise to a number of independent European nations (some
restored to an independent existence after centuries of subjugation, others
appearing for the first time: Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia,
Yugoslavia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia
(4) WW1 set the stage for the two most powerful authoritarian movements
of the twentieth century: it bought Communism to power in Russia
and laid the foundations for the post-war growth of Fascism.
(5) By erasing the Ottoman Empire,WW1 radically reshaped the
map of the Middle East. Not only did it redraw the boundaries into more
or less their present form, it also gave rise to modern Arab nationalism
and laid the foundations for the future establishment of a state of Israel.
(6) WW1 raised both the United States and Japan to the rank of
major world powers.
(7) WW1 spawned the League of Nations (forerunner to the United
WW1 developed new technologies that changed the face of war,including
tanks, airplanes, machine guns, submarines.
Finally, WW1 planted the seeds of WW2; so much so that some historians
speak of the second as a “second round” of the same conflict, fought following
a twenty-year truce.
Goal of the 10-Week Course: to study not only the conflict,
but also its causes and results.
One way in which WW1 may disappoint “war buffs”: it is woefully devoid
of tactical and strategic interest. It is unlike the American Civil
War that supplies instances of both tactical and strategic brilliance (witness
the campaigns of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson) still studied in
military academies today. The only thing distinguishing most WW1
battles and campaigns is their sheer length and the numbers of men sacrificed
in fighting them.
Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: German officer who tried
to defend German East Africa (today Tanzania) with a small force largely
composed of Africans. One of the exceedingly few examples of a brilliant
campaign in WW1.
European Attitude on the eve of WW1: few in Europe were afflicted
by a sense that the continent stood on the edge of an abyss that would
change everything forever. Instead, Europe at the beginning of the
twentieth century was a supremely confident society. Europeans, particularly
in dominant countries like England, France, and Germany, saw themselves
living at the apex of history.
Examples of the prevailing mood:
(1) Opening passage of Frank Chambers, This Age of Conflict (finest
textbook on Twentieth Century history)
(2) Arnold Toynbee, Civilization on Trial (1948): An Englishman
who survived WW1 and became one of the most famous historians of the 20th
century, Toynbee recalled in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner his own
country’s smug, pre-war view that the English people were invulnerable
to history’s ravages. Also recounted the naive attitude of his Oxford
classmates in 1908 to the crises brewing in Central Europe.
The Lost Generation: those who came of age in the years around
1914, so many of whom would die in the trenches during four years of unmitigated
WW1 was not a conflict fought primarily by professional soldiers, but
instead by huge armies of volunteers and draftees. It became a massive,
bloody slugging match that eventually drew in most of Europe’s youth, a
sizeable portion of whom did not survive.
Going into the war, most major European countries had a draft system
(2) United States of America
In 1914, the English marched off to battle with only a relatively small,
professional army, one that was largely pulverized in the campaigns of
1914 and early 1915. In 1915 and 1916, before a newly instituted
draft could have full affect, a volunteer army took the place of those
who had fallen. Upperclass Englishmen, such as those Oxford undergraduates
known to Toynbee, rushed to join up in huge numbers. Many became
field officers (such as Robert Graves, the author of Goodbye
to All That.) Among them, the casualty rate was particularly
Sir Horatio Kitchener: England's ranking soldier; Secretary of
War during the early years of the conflict. One of the few in 1914 who
realized just how prolonged and bloody a conflict it was going to be. He
laid the groundwork for the English draft system.
Field officers vrs. Staff officers: Staff officers are
those who plan the campaigns; field officers are those who actually lead
In WW1, the casualty figures for field officers up to the rank of major
or even colonel were quite high. By contrast, staff officers and
generals tended to be spared the horrendous conditions the rest of the
army faced. While in the American Civil War, general officers put
themselves at risk, this was not true of WW1.
Paths of Glory: superb WW1 film directed by Stanley Kubrick
and starring Kurt Douglas has to do with the divide between officers actually
fighting at the front and those sending in their orders from the rear.
Le Grand Illusion: self-deceptive attitude of Europeans
on the eve of WW1 that believed in inevitable and uninterrupted progress,
stability, and prosperity; the view expressed by Toynbee that Europeans
were somehow “above” history.
Two books through which to understand this naively optimistic view
shared by Europeans on the eve of WW1:
Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower : popular historical account
of Europe in the decades before the war written by one of the best-known
historians of the late 20th century.
Upton Sinclair, World’s End: part of the Lanny Budd series
following a fictious youth as he matures and becomes an American diplomat;
this first novel in the series traces the life of the privileged classes
in the pre-war period and throughout the conflict. At the beginning
of his career, the author was one of the leading “muck-rakers” of the early
20th century and Pulitzer Prize winner whose most famous work, The Jungle,
helped lead to reforms of the meat-packing industry.
For a brief synopsis of the major works dealing with World War I, see
The Literature of Conflict.
Five critical factors that brought on WW1:
(1) the failure of the European state system to "digest" its
newest member, a German nation, that achieved unification only in 1871.
The aggressive nationalism of this new Germany, coupled with its strange
sense of insecurity, would lead to war.
(2) the growing "nationality problem" within the Austro-Hungarian
Empire, the most ethnically fragmented of all the great powers. Throughout
the 19th and early 20th centuries, the empire was fighting what would ultimately
be a losing battle to preserve itself against disintegration due to the
national aspirations of its many minorities.
(3) the terminal decay of the Ottoman Empire and the freeing
up of territories which the Turks had dominated for centuries.
(4) the rivalry of Austria-Hungary and Russia as each sought
greater influence within the Balkan peninsula as Turkish power there receded.
(5) the nationalistic aspirations of the Balkan populations themselves,
in particular, the Serbs, the most aggressive of those populations.