CLOSE
Frank Hurley/Getty Images
Frank Hurley/Getty Images

WWI Centennial: An Overview

Frank Hurley/Getty Images
Frank Hurley/Getty Images

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. For the last six years we’ve been covering the causes and major events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. All the entries in the WWI Centennial blog are available in reverse chronological order, along with other stories about the war, here.

With the final climactic year underway, we’re also providing a (relatively) condensed version so new readers can catch up and long-time readers can refresh their memories.

1914: THE CONFLICT BEGINS

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb nationalists in Sarajevo, the leaders of the ailing Austro-Hungarian Empire decided to use the murder of the heir to the throne as a pretext to crush their troublesome neighbor, the Kingdom of Serbia, once and for all. With support from their powerful ally Germany, they delivered an ultimatum to Serbia with demands so outrageous it was guaranteed to be rejected, giving them an excuse to declare war.

But Germany and Austria-Hungary’s clumsy efforts to “localize” the conflict went off the rails in the “July Crisis.” After Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, on July 30 Serbia’s Slavic patron Russia mobilized against Austria-Hungary and Germany. On August 1 Germany declared war on Russia and its ally France, and on August 4 Britain declared war on Germany after German troops violated Belgian neutrality as part of the Schlieffen Plan.

As war rippled across the planet, fighting defied expectations on both sides. France’s attempt to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine ended in bloody defeat during the Battle of the Frontiers, while the Germans overcame the odds to destroy the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg, and Austria-Hungary suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Serbs at Kolubara. In September Germany’s invasion of northern France failed decisively at the “Miracle on the Marne,” and the exhausted Germans retreated north and dug in, marking the emergence of trench warfare.

The opposing armies now tried to outflank each other again and again, without success, in the “Race to the Sea,” leaving parallel lines of trenches behind them, eventually reaching the North Sea in Flanders in western Belgium. Here the Germans made one last push to break through the Allied lines at Ypres (fated to be the scene of two more titanic battles in the years to come). As 1914 drew to a close, the horrific casualties shocked the world, and the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers in November just spread the bloody stalemate further.  However there was a brief moment of good cheer with the famous Christmas Eve Truce.


Erik Sass

1915: GALLIPOLI AND THE GREAT RETREAT

The following year was marked by more disappointments and surprises. Frustrated on the Western Front, Britain and France tried, and failed, to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war with a long shot attempt to “force” the Turkish straits with warships, followed by amphibious landings, resulting in an even worse defeat at Gallipoli.

Although the Turks held off the Allied attacks, the threat to the Turkish homeland, along with the fact that some Armenian Christians were helping their Russian co-religionists invade the empire, prompted the Ottoman “Young Turk” triumvirate to unleash the Armenian Genocide, killing around 1.5 million by 1917. At the same time, after a year of heated debate Italy—thinking Gallipoli was going to be a big Allied victory—finally joined the Allies with a declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, but immediately became bogged down in trench warfare as well.

In spring 1915 Germany outraged public opinion with two brutal new weapons: poison gas and submarine warfare. The German Fourth Army unleashed chlorine gas on Allied forces at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, causing horrific casualties but ultimately failing to achieve a breakthrough, thanks to the bravery of Canadian troops; This set the pattern for the rest of the war, as both sides used poison gas to amplify the effects of artillery bombardments on enemy trenches—with terrible but rarely decisive effects.

Meanwhile Germany’s decision to mount unrestricted U-boat warfare brought her to the brink of war with the United States, the world’s most powerful neutral nation. The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 infuriated the American public and pushed the U.S. towards the Allies (although there was also anger at the Allied blockade of the Central Powers, which hurt U.S. business interests). The Germans backed down, but remained determined to cut the Allies off from American industry, the key to sustaining the Allied war effort.

The summer of 1915 brought the first major breakthrough of the war on the Eastern Front, with the Central Powers’ rapid conquest of Russian Poland during the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign. The Russian Great Retreat, as it came to be known, was a huge setback, prompting Tsar Nicholas II to take over personal command of the Russian Army—meaning he would be held responsible for future defeats. And worse was to come for the Allies: in October 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers and helped crush Serbia. The remnants of the Serbian Army managed to escape through Albania, and were subsequently evacuated by Allied ships to the island of Corfu. Eventually the Serbian Army was redeployed in Salonika in northern Greece, reinforcing Allied troops recently evacuated from Gallipoli in a belated effort to help Serbia from the south.


Erik Sass

1916: CATASTROPHIC CASUALTIES

Some of the biggest battles in human history occurred in Europe the following year, beginning with the incredible German onslaught at Verdun in February 1916. A cold-blooded German plan to “bleed France dry” through simple attrition, Verdun soon spun out of control, resulting in almost as many casualties for the Germans as the French. The failure led to the firing of chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, replaced in September 1916 by Paul von Hindenburg (aided by his chief strategist, Erich Ludendorff).

In June 1916 the Russians launched their most successful offensive of the war by far, orchestrated by General Alexei Brusilov, a pioneer of “combined arms,” in which attacks by artillery, infantry and airplanes were carefully coordinated to punch holes in widely separated portions of the enemy front at once. The Brusilov Offensive, as it became known, resulted in the almost total collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies in Galicia by September 1916, forcing Germany to withdraw troops from other parts of the front to prop up its beleaguered ally, at which point the Russian offensive sputtered.

The summer of 1916 was a grim time for the Central Powers, as the British also launched their biggest offensive of the war to date at the Somme. The Allies inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans but also suffered breathtaking losses, with 57,470 British casualties including 19,240 dead on the first day alone (July 1, 1916). In the weeks to come the British scored more victories, pushing the enemy back again and again, but the Germans were always able to dig into new defensive positions; the battlefield debut of tanks in September 1916 spread terror in the German ranks but failed to provide a decisive advantage.

In another case of bad timing, in August 1916 Romania—encouraged by Russian success in the Brusilov Offensive and the British advance at the Somme—joined the Allies in hopes of conquering Austria-Hungary’s ethnic Romanian provinces. However this soon proved a disastrous mistake, as Germany rushed more reinforcements to the Balkans and swiftly crushed the Romanians with help from the Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians and Turks, occupying Bucharest by winter.


Erik Sass

1917: THE U.S. ENTERS THE WAR

The fourth year of the war started and ended with upheaval. Leading the way was the Russian Revolution in March 1917, when workers and soldiers overthrew the Romanov Dynasty and seized power on behalf of the Duma, or parliament. However the new Provisional Government was always weak, forced to share power with the Petrograd Soviet, a socialist assembly representing soldiers and workers, and leftist radicals in the Soviet, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks, wanted to overthrow the Provisional Government too.

The radicals got a boost with the failure of the disastrous offensive ordered by War Minister Alexander Kerensky in July, followed by an abortive military coup led by a conservative general, Kornilov, which undermined popular support for the new regime. After their own failed coup attempt in July, the Bolsheviks finally succeeded in overthrowing the Provisional Government in November, supposedly seizing power on behalf of the socialist Soviets—but in reality for themselves. The Bolsheviks would soon take Russia out of the war, a huge setback for the Allies.

This wasn’t their only problem. In March 1917 the Germans made a surprise withdrawal to formidable new defenses on the Western Front, known as the Hindenburg Line, in order to shorten their line and free up forces to fight elsewhere. Following the bloody defeat of the French spring offensive on the Western Front, half the French Army mutinied in May 1917, paralyzing the French war effort. Although General Philippe Petain, the hero of Verdun, set about improving conditions and restoring order, it would take months before the French Army was able to mount a major offensive. To take the pressure off their weakened ally, the British launched a gigantic offensive at the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, which achieved some gains, but again ultimately failed to break through the German lines. The stunning Italian defeat at Caporetto then forced the British to halt the offensive to reinforce the Italian front.

Fortunately for Britain and France, an even bigger ally was rumbling into action. Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare in February 1917, followed by the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram, in which the Germans secretly encouraged Mexico to declare war on the U.S., outraged American public opinion so much that President Woodrow Wilson got Congress to declare war on Germany on April 4, 1917. But it would take time for the U.S. to build an army big enough to make a difference in Europe.


Erik Sass

After the Bolsheviks agreed to an armistice in December, Russia’s exit from the war and descent into civil war spelled bad news for the Allies. As 1917 drew to a close, the big question was whether the Germans would be able to transfer troops from the Eastern Front and crush the overstretched British and French before American troops started arriving in large numbers? This was the final race that would decide the outcome of the war.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Laima Gūtmane, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Construction Workers Discover World War II–Era German Burial Ground in Estonia
A German military cemetery in Estonia
A German military cemetery in Estonia
Laima Gūtmane, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Around 35,000 German soldiers died in Estonia during World War II while fighting Soviet troops, according to the German War Graves Association. To this day, construction workers still occasionally find their graves. While building a memorial to victims of communism in a park near Estonia's capital city of Tallinn, laborers recently discovered the remains of around 100 German soldiers, Deutsche Welle reports.

The bodies were buried separately instead of in a mass grave. Experts think the burial ground is part of a German military cemetery, and say it's unclear whether more bodies remain to be found. Archaeologists will survey the area before construction resumes, and the deceased soldiers will be reburied at an already established German cemetery nearby, according to Estonian broadcasting unit ERR.

The communist Soviet Union absorbed the Baltic countries during the war, but they were also periodically occupied by Nazi Germany. Decades later, in 1995, Estonia and Germany signed an agreement that allowed the latter country to restore and operate war cemeteries and memorials in Estonia commemorating their fallen soldiers.

Twelve German cemeteries exist today in Estonia (the one in the above image is located in Narva), but reburial efforts are still likely far from over: Between 3000 and 4000 German soldiers were interred around Tallinn alone, the BBC notes, and an additional 10,000 or so prisoners of war also died in labor camps during the war, in addition to soldiers killed on Estonian territory. Many of these graves were either unmarked or destroyed, according to the German War Graves Association.

[h/t Deutsche Welle]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives, Wikimedia Commons // No restrictions
arrow
war
WWI Centennial: Wilson Presents ‘Fourteen Points,’ House Approves Suffrage Amendment
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives, Wikimedia Commons // No restrictions
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives, Wikimedia Commons // No restrictions

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 299th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

January 8-10, 1918: Wilson Presents ‘Fourteen Points,’ House Approves Suffrage Amendment

By the beginning of 1918, it was clear to close observers that the United States of America was gearing up to make a significant contribution to the Allied war effort, though it would take some time (and President Woodrow Wilson insisted it was only as an “Associated,” not an Allied, power, limiting America’s obligations to Britain and France).

The size of the American Expeditionary Force was set to increase from 176,000 troops in January to 424,000 in May, 722,000 in June, and 966,000 in July, with troop shipments expedited in response to pleas from the French during the dark days of the German spring offensives beginning in March. Meanwhile America's financial contributions were soaring, with loans to Britain more than doubling from $1.5 billion in 1917 to $3.6 billion in 1918.

However, it remained to be seen what vision Wilson would present for the post-war order, now that America was in the driver’s seat, not just providing critical manpower but also supplying the Allied war effort and holding billions of dollars of their debt. On January 8, 1918 Wilson sketched out some of the foundational elements of his peace program, the “Fourteen Points,” in a speech to a joint session of Congress on “War Aims and Peace Terms.”

Wilson began by noting that Russia had made a reasonable peace offer to the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk, but had been spurned, as the latter intended “to keep every foot of territory their armed forces had occupied—every province, every city, every point of vantage—as a permanent addition to their territories and their power.” Denouncing the brazen imperialism of the authoritarian governments that ruled the Central Powers, which were running roughshod over their parliaments, Wilson went on to lay out the principles of a just world order built on the democratic ideal that all governments must have the consent of the governed. However, in this, as in his other idealistic programs, the goals remained vague, unrealistic, or contradictory.

First among the Fourteen Points, Wilson insisted that the age of secret alliances, of the sort which brought Europe to war, was over: henceforth all treaties and covenants should be open, public knowledge. He also called for free navigation on the seas, implying the lifting of the Allied naval blockade and the end of U-boat warfare, free trade, and arms reduction agreements.

Most of these proposals were reasonable enough, but others were less plausible. For example, during the adjudication of colonial disputes in which European powers drew and redrew the boundaries of African and Asian possessions, the Europeans were somehow supposed to take into account the interests of the colonial populations themselves—even though the whole colonial enterprise limited native voices to exclude them from politics by design. Calling for self-determination and new national boundaries in Europe, Wilson ignored the fact that the Allies couldn’t even reconcile their own contradictory postwar territorial claims (see cartoon below). Returning to open diplomacy, how could anyone guarantee that countries weren’t engaged in secret alliances behind the scenes?


Burt Randolph Thomas, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Meanwhile, it came as no surprise that Wilson’s most immediate and concrete demands—including the Central Powers evacuating all their conquests in Russia, Poland, France, Belgium, and the Balkans—were non-starters for the Germans, as the military party led by chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his chief strategist, Erich Ludendorff, still believed the war could be won, allowing Germany to keep at least some of her conquests. Wilson’s call for Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire to grant full autonomy to its various subject peoples was, in effect, calling for the dissolution of Germany’s allies.

Coincidentally, on January 8, 1918 Ludendorff also began planning Germany’s giant springtime offensive, “Operation Michael,” in hopes of knocking Britain and France out of the war with 1 million German troops transferred from the dormant Eastern Front, before American troops could arrive in France in large numbers. The mighty blow would fall in late March 1918.

U.S. House Passes Women’s Suffrage Amendment

On January 10, 1918 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 19th Amendment, later known as the Women’s Suffrage Amendment, by the necessary two-thirds majority—but a one-vote margin. This was a huge breakthrough, but by no means the end of the struggle: the Senate would reject the bill twice before approving the amendment for ratification by the states and final adoption on August 18, 1920.

The suffrage movement, demanding voting enfranchisement for women, dated back to the mid-19th century, when it originated in connection with both the American abolitionist and temperance movements, thanks to activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, Clara Barton, and others. New western territories gave a boost to the cause: in 1869 the Wyoming territory granted women the right to vote, perhaps in hopes of attracting more women of marriageable age for their male-dominated frontier population, followed by Utah (1870), Washington territory (1883), Kansas (1887), and Colorado (1893)—the latter delivered by a referendum, with 35,798 or 55 percent of male voters voting in favor. A majority of male voters in California chose to give women the right to vote in 1911.

However, the First World War galvanized the women’s suffrage movement across the west, as women demanded recognition of their many personal sacrifices and contributions to the war effort, giving the issue a sense of inevitability. In August 1917 the debate was already considered old news in enlightened circles, according to Mildred Aldrich, a retired American writer living in France, who wrote:

I imagine we have buried for all time what has for so many years been known as the “women question.”… The beauty of the whole matter is that woman has won by acts, not words. She has won by doing a woman’s work ... In every branch of war work done by unarmed men, women have appeared and shown the same courage and the same unfailing patriotism as men … No wonder the suffrage excitement is already ancient history.

Although American women would have to wait a few more years, neutral Denmark adopted women’s suffrage in 1915, and a number of Canadian provinces followed in 1916-1918. Russia’s post-revolutionary Provisional Government granted women the right to vote in 1917. Britain’s Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, granting the right to vote to 8.4 million female householders, on June 19, 1917, taking effect with elections in December 1918. Germany enshrined women’s suffrage in the Weimar constitution adopted in 1919.

Women’s Work, Women’s War

The wave of women’s suffrage reflected massive social changes that took place during the war, shifting the balance of power between the genders, as European women shouldered heavy duties to sustain the war effort but also gained economic leverage thanks to higher-paid work. In 1917 Julia Stimson, an American chief nurse, proudly noted the changes wrought by the war in Britain, especially the influx of women into what was previously men’s work—while wondering about the long-term consequences:

From the highest to the lowest each woman has her work … Of course the street-sweeping by women is a kind of war work, and the bus conductoring, and delivering mail and telegrams, and driving cars and ambulances. The streets are full of women in uniforms of all sorts, all smart and business-like. Women in England are coming into their own … What is to happen after the men come back can well fill the [mind] … for a change is taking place here that can never be undone.

The huge changes were evident on both sides of the conflict. Ernest Bullitt, an American woman visiting Germany, wrote in her diary in June 1916:

The munition factories pay the highest wages. The average wage for these women now is about eight marks a day. In Germany, as in the other warring countries, there is little the women are not doing. Sturdy peasant girls pace the streets, dig ditches, lay pipes. Women drive the mail wagons and delivery wagons, deliver the post, work in in open mines, work electric walking cranes in iron foundries, sell tickets and take tickets in railway stations, act as conductors in the subway.

Later Bullitt noted that female industrial workers were central to maintaining Germany’s war effort—and like Stimson, predicted a gender clash when the war ended:

There are great numbers in the metal industries doing half-skilled work, and also women doing the skilled work. They manage the travelling cranes in iron and steel foundries, a thing no employer believed was possible. They do what is called “electro-technical” work … They dig the coal and also load the cars … The employers declare they wish to keep the industries which they have entered, and it will be quite a fight to prevent their going on working in many of them.


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The numbers of women employed were in keeping with the scale of the conflict. In Britain, in addition to organizations like the Women’s War Auxiliary Corps, which allowed thousands of women to serve in non-combat military roles, and the Women’s Land Army, which employed a quarter-million women in agricultural work, 1.7 million women entered the labor force during the war, bringing the total number of women at work to 4.9 million by 1918, and increasing the proportion of women in the industrial workforce from a quarter to nearly half (46.7 percent).


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In France, women constituted 38 percent of the country’s total work force in 1914 but this increased to 46 percent in 1918, including 430,000 women who made up 30 percent of the total workforce for the arms industry. In Germany the proportion of women in the labor force jumped from 22 percent in 1913 to 35 percent in 1918, including 700,000 in the armaments industry. In Austria-Hungary 42 percent of the empire’s heavy industrial workforce was female by the end of the war.

The move to well-paid factory jobs was economically liberating, allowing women to scale the wage ladder from traditional, poorly compensated female employment. In Britain the number of women working in domestic service fell from 1.66 million to 1.26 million over the course of the war, and the number of British women in trade unions jumped from 437,000 in 1914 to over 1.2 million in 1918, reflecting their growing economic and political clout.


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Across Europe, governments and private businesses were compelled to provide childcare for female workers, sometimes in the form of “factory nurseries.” Bullitt noted other concessions to women workers in Germany in her diary in June 1916:

Employers are not allowed to discharge women for child-bearing. They must give them two weeks’ holiday before the child’s birth, and four weeks after. During this period they get two thirds of their wages from their sickness insurance. Also, they may get their doctor and medicines free.

However, not all the new employment was new or liberating, especially in sectors like agriculture. Across Europe, peasant women did their best to maintain homesteads in the absence of husbands and sons, relying on older children for labor and using the local church or informal arrangements for childcare for the rest. Elizabeth Ashe, an American woman volunteering with the Red Cross, described one guest of a “refuge” for women with children. “We saw a woman who was here for a few days’ rest, she works in the fields at night with a helmet and gas mask, because the shells drop on her so in the day time she can not work," she wrote. "She has a baby two months old whom she leaves in this refuge.”


Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although used to hard work, many peasant women were unused to the physical strain involved in activities like horse-drawn plowing. Emilie Carles, a Frenchwoman who maintained the farm while her brother was a way, remembered:

Before he left, Joseph taught me to plow. The hardest part wasn’t so much dealing with a mule or yoke of cows as holding on to the handle. I was not tall. I remember we had an ordinary plow, the swing type, with a handle designed for a man. It was far too high for me. When I cut furrows with that contrivance, I got the handle in the chest or face every time I hit a stone.

Nothing Romantic About It

It is important not to romanticize the plight of ordinary women separated from male loved ones and breadwinners and plunged into hardship and uncertainty. Peasant women faced acute financial pressures as they struggled with reduced incomes. One war widow wrote to the French journalist Rene Bazin, explaining her reasons for throwing in the towel:

Although I myself drive our horses, who are too strong to be entrusted to the old men or the boys, and I load the wagons, I’m not making the value of the rental contract owing to the poor harvest and the increases in wages … At present, I can only sow wheat in two-thirds of the land that should be planted in grain. Thus, certain deficit for next year. If I stay on, the little that my husband left to his children will be swallowed up.

At the same time industrial work was hardly a panacea. The fact is, like their peasant counterparts numerous women cracked under the dual strains of factory work and caring for their families. Madeleine Zabriskie, an American socialist activist visiting Germany in 1916, received the following description of one woman from a social worker at a German arms factory:

The woman you inquired about lives in a suburb. She must have been good-looking when she was young, but she has given birth to 12 children, the oldest is thirteen and the youngest six months. Four of her children died … Her husband worked for nine years in the factory. When the war broke out he was mobilized and joined the army August 4, 1914. Until then they had been happy, but that changed everything. They had to move out of their house. They took an apartment of two rooms. It was crowded with nine people in two rooms, but they could not afford anything better. The birth of the last child caused the mother great suffering and she had to give up her factory work … The woman is weak and much shaken in health. At night she worries about her husband and cannot sleep. She weeps a great deal and really the burden laid on her is almost too heavy.

Another German woman wrote to her husband, a POW in France, in August 1917:

I am so sick and tired of human life that I want to cut my own and my children’s throat, I am not afraid of committing a sin, after all I am forced by misery. You have to be the most stupid person on God’s earth when you have children. They take the breadwinner away from the children and let them starve to death, they are crying for bread the whole day long … I have got our four little children, none of them can help earn some money. I have to feed them, wash them, have to mend their clothes, etc. I have to stand in the street all day long and wait for hours until I get a few things to eat … But who cares about a soldier’s wife with a lot of little children, she can perish together with her children.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios