Five Things to Know About World War I

  1. Europe Brings the World to War: World War I, initially the “Great War,” was the result of nationalism, ethnic hatred, colonial rivalry, ideological conflict and a binding system of alliances among the nation states of Europe. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary mobilized against Serbia following the assassination of its Archduke. As these two warring nations called on their diplomatic alliances for their support, the globe quickly spiraled into war. Russia, Britain, France and Italy joined Serbia as The Allies. Germany, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined Austria-Hungary as the Central Powers. These countries in turn called or conscripted soldiers from their colonies–India, China and many parts of Africa. Russia fought with Germany on the Eastern Front, while, in 1915, the Allies attacked in Gallipoli (modern Turkey). On the Western Front in Europe, where most of the fighting of the war took place, soldiers from the two opposing sides dug into trenches, creating a deadly stalemate. In battles such as Ypres and Verdun, the fighting was bloody and intense, and yet neither side gained meaningful ground. New technologies were brought to war – machine guns, the first military tank, weaponization of toxic gases like chlorine, and, just 11 years after the first flight at Kitty Hawk, airplanes.
  2. US Forces Rapidly Build to Enter the Conflict: Nearly three years into the war, the US could no longer ignore German aggression on our southern border (promising Mexico a return of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico in exchange for an alliance) and at sea. When the US entered the War on April 2, 1917, the US military force was only the 13th largest in the world, and small, with 121,000 full-time soldiers and sailors, and another 181,000 men in the National Guard. But the nation’s fighting force grew rapidly, with an aggressive recruitment effort and implementation of a draft. By the end of the war, two million men had volunteered and at least as many had had been drafted. Nearly 60% of these men served overseas, the first time the US sent its troops abroad to defend foreign soil. Women were able to enlist in the regular armed forces for the first time; over 80,000 volunteered in roles such as nurse, switchboard operator, or clerk.
  3. American Entry Escalates the War’s End: The US soldiers deployed to Europe, or “doughboys” they were nicknamed, quickly increased the pressure on the Germans in Northern Europe. US Army General Pershing shifted the focus from trench warfare to more open battle and the Allies began to take ground. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, fought over 47 days from September to early November, 1918, was the largest military campaign in US history, involving 1.2 million American soldiers. It was also the second most deadly campaign in US history (behind the Normandy campaign in WWII), with half of the American casualties from WW1 occurring in this battle. But it brought the War’s end; Germany surrendered on Armistice Day. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, hostilities ceased on the Western Front.
  4. A Fearsome Human Toll: The total number of military deaths from WW1 is estimated at 10 million, with another 23 million soldiers wounded. Civilians in Europe suffered terribly. Starvation, disease and deliberate “ethnic cleansing” (the murder of civilians because of their ethnic background) cost another 6-13 million lives. By the end of the War, four empires – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire—were in tatters, their citizens facing an uncertain future. 53,402 Americans died in battle, including 219 Utahns, and 204,000 more were wounded. The raging Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 increased the suffering of the final year of the war. There were an additional 63,114 non-combat deaths among American military personnel, including 446 Utahns; many of these men died from the flu. Over 30,000 Americans are interred at nine international military cemeteries, in France (7), Britain, and Belgium. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, VA, was established on November 11, 1921, to memorialize those soldiers whose bodies could not be identified. November 11, “Armistice Day,” is now observed as Veterans Day, which is set aside to honor military veterans.
  5. The War’s Conclusion Does Not Bring Lasting Peace: The President Wilson brought “14 Points” to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, optimistic that the international community could work together as a “League of Nations” to resolve international conflicts and maintain peace. But the final Treaty of Versailles was extremely harsh towards Germany. The humiliation of the war guilt clause and the anger over the dismantling of the German army, the stripping away of certain German territories, and the demand for hundreds of billions (in today’s dollars) in financial restitution helped fuel the rise of German nationalism that eventually led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II. The US did not join the League of Nations and chose isolationism until an attack on American soil compelled us to join World War II.