Facts, information and articles about World War I, aka The Great War
World War I Facts
July 28, 1914 – November 11, 1918
Europe, Mideast, Africa, Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean, North Sea, Baltic Sea
Allied Powers / Entente:
King George V
President Raymond Poincare
Tsar Nicholas II
King Victor Emmanuel III
King Peter I
King Albert I
Chief of General Staff Constantin Prezan
Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos
President Woodrow Wilson
Kaiser Wilhelm II
Emperor Franz Josef I
Minister of War Enver Pasha
Tsar Ferdinand I
Allied Powers casualties: 22 million
Central Powers casualties: 37.5 million
End of Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman & Russian empires
Harsh surrender terms forced on Germany major cause of WWII
Redrawing of borders in Europe & Mideast
World War I Articles
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World War I summary: The war fought between July 28, 1914, and November 11, 1918, was known at the time as the Great War, the War to End War, and (in the United States) the European War. Only when the world went to war again in the 1930s and ’40s did the earlier conflict become known as the First World War. Its casualty totals were unprecedented, soaring into the millions. World War I is known for the extensive system of trenches from which men of both sides fought. Lethal new technologies were unleashed, and for the first time a major war was fought not only on land and on sea but below the sea and in the skies as well. The two sides were known as the Allies or Entente—consisting primarily of France, Great Britain, Italy, Russia, and later the United States—and the Central Powers, primarily comprised of Austria-Hungary (the Habsburg Empire), Germany, and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). A number of smaller nations aligned themselves with one side or the other. In the Pacific Japan, seeing a chance to seize German colonies, threw in with the Allies. The Allies were the victors, as the entry of the United States into the war in 1917 added an additional weight of men and materiel the Central Powers could not hope to match.
The war resulted in a dramatically changed geo-political landscape, including the destruction of three empires: Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian. New borders were drawn at its conclusion and resentments, especially on the part of Germany, left festering in Europe. Ironically, decisions made after the fighting ceased led the War to End War to be a significant cause of the Second World War.
As John Keegan wrote in The First World War (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict … the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice.”
Casualties in World War I
In terms of sheer numbers of lives lost or disrupted, the Great War was the most destructive war in history until it was overshadowed by its offspring, the Second World War: an estimated 10 million military deaths from all causes, plus 20 million more crippled or severely wounded. Estimates of civilian casualties are harder to make; they died from shells, bombs, disease, hunger, and accidents such as explosions in munitions factories; in some cases, they were executed as spies or as “object lessons.” Additionally, as Neil M. Heyman in World War I (Greenwood Press, 1997) wrote, “Not physically hurt but scarred nonetheless were 5 million widowed women, 9 million orphaned children, and 10 million individuals torn from their homes to become refugees.” None of this takes into account the deaths in the Russian Civil War or the Third Balkan War, both of which directly resulted from World War I, nor the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed 50 million people worldwide, which was spread in part by conditions at the front and by soldiers returning home.
The highest national military casualty totals—killed, wounded, and missing/taken prisoner—in round numbers (sources disagree on casualty totals), were:
- Russia: 9,150,000
- Germany: 7,143,000
- Austria-Hungary: 7,000,000
- France, 6,161,000
- Britain & Commonwealth: 3,190,000
- Italy: 2,197,000
- Turkey (Ottoman Empire): 975,000
- Romania: 536,000
- Serbia: 331,000
- USA: 323,000
- Bulgaria: 267,000
For more information, click to see the Casualties of World War I.
Causes of World War I
Prime Minister of Germany Otto von Bismarck had prophesied that when war again came to Europe it would be over “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans.” Indeed, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Habsburg throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie, by a Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914, was the match that lit the fuse—but it didn’t create the powder keg. The outbreak of war between European nations was the result of several factors:
- Concern over other countries’ military expansion, leading to an arms race and entangling alliances
- Fear of losing economic and/or diplomatic status
- Long-standing ethnic differences and rising nationalism in the Balkans
- French resentment of territorial losses in the 1871 Franco-Prussian War
- The influence exerted by military leaders
Following their 1871 victory in the Franco-Prussian War, the German states unified into a single nation. Its leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, eldest grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria, envisioned an Imperial Navy that could rival Great Britain’s large and renowned fleet. This would increase German influence in the world and likely allow the country to expand its colonial holdings. Britain, fearful of losing its dominance of the seas, accelerated its naval design and construction to stay ahead of the Kaiser’s ship-building program.
Russia was rebuilding and modernizing its large army and had begun a program of industrialization. Germany and Austria-Hungary saw the threat posed by Russia’s large population and, hence, its ability to raise a massive army. They formed an alliance for self-protection against the Russian bear.
France, still stinging over the loss of Alsace and part of Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian war, made an agreement allying itself with Russia in any war with Germany or Austria-Hungary. Britain, after finding itself friendless during the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899–1902) allied itself with France and worked to improve relations with the United States of America. Russia, with many ethnic groups inside its vast expanse, made an alliance with Serbia in the Balkans.
The old Ottoman Empire was crumbling; “The Sick Man of Europe” was the phrase used to describe the once-powerful state. As its ability to exert control over its holdings in the Balkans weakened, ethnic and regional groups broke away and formed new states. Rising nationalism led to the First and Second Balkan Wars, 1912 and 1913. As a result of those wars, Serbia increased its size and began pushing for a union of all South Slavic peoples. Serbian nationalism led 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Habsburg throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie. Austria-Hungary, urged on by Germany, sent a list of demands to Serbia in response; the demands were such that Serbia was certain to reject them. When it did, the Habsburg Empire declared war on Serbia on July 28, exactly one month after the archduke’s assassination. Russia came in on the side of the Serbs, Germany on the side of the Habsburgs, and the entangling alliances between the nations of Europe pulled one after another into the war. Although diplomats throughout Europe strove to settle matters without warfare right up to the time the shooting started, the influence military leaders enjoyed in many nations won out—along with desires to capture new lands or reclaim old ones.
Combat in the First World War
German military planners were ready when the declarations of war began flying across Europe. They intended to hold off the Russians in the east, swiftly knock France out of the war through a maneuver known as the Schliefffen Plan, then throw their full force, along with Austria-Hungary, against the Russians. The Schliefffen Plan, named for General Count Alfred von Schlieffen who created it in 1905, called for invading the Low Countries (Luxembourg and Belgium) in order to bypass to the north the strong fortifications along the French border. After a rapid conquest of the Low Countries, the German advance would continue into northern France, swing around Paris to the west and capture the French capital. It almost worked, but German commander in chief General Helmuth von Moltke decided to send his forces east of Paris to engage and defeat the weakened French army head-on. In doing so he exposed his right flank to counterattack by the French and a British Expeditionary Force, resulting in the First Battle of the Marne, September 6–10, 1914. Despite casualties in the hundreds of thousands, the battle was a stalemate, but it stopped the German drive on Paris. Both sides began digging a network of trenches. The First Battle of the Marne was a window onto how the rest of the war would be fought: extensive trenchworks against which large numbers of men would be hurled, suffering extremely high casualties for little if any territorial gains. The centuries-old method of massed charges to break through enemy positions did not work when the men faced machine guns, barbed wire, and drastically more effective artillery than in the past.
The next four years would see battles in which millions of artillery shells were fired and millions of men were killed or mutilated. Click here to read about some of the costliest battles of the First World War. Deadly new weapons were responsible for the unprecedented carnage.
New Weapons of World War I
Among the lethal technological developments that were used for the first time (or in some cases used for the first time in a major conflict) during the Great War were the machine gun, poison gas, flamethrowers, tanks and aircraft. Artillery increased dramatically in size, range and killing power compared to its 19th-century counterparts. In the war at sea, submarines could strike unseen from beneath the waves, using torpedoes to send combat and merchant ships to the bottom. Click here for more information on Weapons of World War I.
War on the Eastern Front
On the Eastern Front, the German general Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff Erich Ludendorff engineered strategies that gave them dramatic victories over Russian armies. The war became increasing unpopular among the Russian people. Ludendorff, sensing a chance to take Tsar Nicholas II’s country out of the war, arranged for an exiled Marxist revolutionary named Vladimir Lenin to cross Europe in a special train and get back into Russia. As hoped, Lenin helped fuel the rising revolutionary fervor. The tsar was deposed and executed with his family in the March 1917 revolution. For the first time in Russian history a republican democracy was established, but its leaders underestimated the people’s resistance to continuing the war. When the new government failed to bring about a rapid peace, it was overthrown in November by a socialist revolution led by Lenin, following which Russia signed a peace agreement with Germany.
War in the Mountains
Fighting in the high elevations of the Balkans and Alps created additional agony for soldiers fighting there: bitterly cold winters and especially rugged terrain.
Serbia, whose countryman had fired the shots that gave rise to the slaughter taking place in Europe, was invaded twice by Austria-Hungary but repulsed both attempts. In the autumn of 1915, a third invasion came. This time the Hapsburgs were joined by Germany and Bulgaria. The outnumbered Serbs gave ground. Ultimately, the Serbian Army only escaped annihilation by a demanding march through Albania to the Adriatic Sea, where the French Navy rescued the survivors.
Romania remained neutral until August 1916 when it joined the Allies and declared war on Austria-Hungary in hopes of securing additional territories including Transylvania. As the poorly trained Romanian army advanced into Transylvania, German forces invaded and occupied Romania itself, quickly knocking the country out of the war.
Italy, wooed by both sides, entered the war on the Allied side in May 1915. Its efforts were concentrated on breaking through Austria’s mountain defenses, but its poorly equipped soldiers were ground up in a series of attacks at the Isonzo River, though their opponents also suffered severely. What gains the Italians made in the war were wiped out by a rout that began at Caporeto in October 1917 and unhinged the entire line.
The War Spreads Beyond Europe
While soldiers in Europe lived and died in the muddy, disease-ridden trenches, Britain attempted an attack in February 1915 against the Ottoman Empire, the “soft underbelly” of Europe, to aid the Russians and, ideally, force Turkey out of the war. An attempted invasion on the Gallipoli Peninsula resulted in a bloody repulse, but war in the interior of the Ottoman Empire met with greater success. Arab groups seeking to overthrow the empire waged a successful guerrilla war in the Mideast, led by Prince Feisal, third son of the Grand Sharif of Mecca. The revolt was aided by British liaison officer T.E. Lawrence of Wales, who became known as Lawrence of Arabia.
When the war ended, the Ottoman Empire was broken up. England and France drew borders for new countries in the Mideast without regard for ethnic and religious factions. The centuries-old tensions between the native inhabitants of the region led to many of the problems causing turmoil in the Mideast today, another irony of the War to End War.
Africa was home to a sideshow of the European fighting. European nationals and colonial troops of both sides fought against each other, but the German colonies were widely separated and unable to support each other. In German East Africa (Tanzania) an aggressive general named Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck waged a guerilla campaign against his British opponents until after the armistice was signed in Europe that ended the Great War.
In the waters of the Pacific Ocean German commerce raiders found prey among merchant vessels of Allied nations. Japan joined the Allies war effort on August 23, 1914, ostensibly in fulfillment of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of 1911. The Land of the Rising Sun seized German colonies such as the Marianas, Marshalls and Carolines island chains that would see intense fighting during the Second World War.
War at Sea
Among the causes of the First World War was the naval arms race that began with Britain’s deployment of HMS Dreadnought, a new design that eschewed small, secondary arms in favor of big guns heavily armored for protection. Every nation wanted a Dreadnought, and Germany sought to increase the size of its fleet to the level of Britain’s. Accomplishing that goal while supporting large armies engaged in warfare proved impossible for Germany, but World War I saw the last great battles fought entirely between surface ships. Notable naval engagements include the Falkland Islands and Coronel off South America, and the battles of Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland in the North Sea. Jutland would prove to be not only the largest naval battle up to that time but the last in which fighting would take place only between surface ships. In World War II, the aircraft carrier became the most lethal surface ship and allowed enemy fleets to engage in battle without ever seeing each other from a captain’s bridge.
The most significant advance in naval warfare to come out of the Great War was the development of submarines, which the German Imperial Navy called Unterseeboots (undersea boats). That got shortened to U-boats, a name that became synonymous with submarine. Subs could hide beneath the waves in shipping lanes to attack merchant or combat ships with torpedoes without ever being seen. Such attacks on merchant or passenger ships without giving the crews and passengers warning so they could escape in lifeboats was considered a violation of the laws of naval warfare, and became known as “unrestricted” submarine warfare. Germany engaged in such unrestricted warfare until U-20 sunk the British passenger liner Lusitania off Ireland in May 1915. Over 1,200 lives were lost, including 128 Americans, and the US threatened to break diplomatic relations with Germany. The Imperial Navy subsequently instituted strict regulations for U-boat attacks, but those went by the boards in 1917 as the Germans tried to cut off supplies to Britain and starve the island nation into submission. It was a bad decision. The renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare and subsequent sinking of three American ships brought the US into the war, after which Germany’s fate was all but sealed.
War in the Air
Airplanes had already seen limited military before World War I began. Italian aircraft were used for reconnaissance and small-scale bombing during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911. Aircraft during World War I continued to be used primarily for reconnaissance, including photo-reconnaissance missions. The first aircraft of the war weren’t even armed, since no serious effort had been made to create a fighting flying machine. Pilots began shooting at each other with pistols and rifles. Soon various schemes were attempted to attach machine guns to planes. The breakthrough came in 1915 when Holland’s Anthony Fokker developed a method to synchronize a machine gun’s fire with the rotation of the propeller on his Eindecker (single-wing) design for the German air force.
Early war planes were very light and used small engines with top speeds of less than 100 mph. On many designs the engine was in the rear and pushed the plane through the air. The demands of wartime, each side trying to outdo the other’s technological advances, created rapid improvements in aircraft design. Changes might occur within weeks; in the decades following the war, such changes would take years. By war’s end small, single-engine planes had been joined by multi-engine bombers such as the Giant, which Germany used to bomb British cities. Zeppelins were also used for reconnaissance and for bombing over land and sea. Tethered barrage balloons carried observers high above the front to watch enemy troop movements—and attracted the attention of the enemy’s airborne fighters.
While the war on the ground was a miserable existence in muddy, rat- and disease-infested trenches, and millions of lives might be spent to gain a few miles of territory, the war in the air captured the imagination of the world. Using this exciting new technology to maneuver through the skies and engage the enemy in one-on-one dogfights in which skillful pilots could rise to the status of ace gave the air war a sense of glamour that still hangs over the pilots of World War I.
America Joins the War
Most Americans saw little reason for the United States to involve itself in “the European War,” though some individuals—such as young pilots excited at the notion of flying in combat—enlisted through Canada or elsewhere. President Woodrow Wilson won reelection in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” That same year he tried to bring the combatant nations to the bargaining table to seek an end to the war that would be fair to all, but the attempt failed.
America was drawn into the conflict by the Zimmerman telegraph and unrestricted submarine warfare. On January 16, 1917, Foreign Secretary of the German Empire Arthur Zimmerman sent a coded message to the German ambassador in Mexico City, Heinrich von Eckart informing him Germany would return to unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, a policy that might cause America to declare war. “We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral,” Zimmerman wrote, but if those efforts failed, Eckart was to convince Mexico to become Germany’s ally. As an inducement, Eckart was authorized to offer the return of the US states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico after America was defeated.
The code was broken, and the contents of the telegram published on March 1. Americans were outraged. Two weeks later German U-boats sank three American vessels. Wilson asked Congress on April 1 to authorize a declaration of war against Germany, which it did four days later. War was declared on the other Central Powers shortly thereafter.
When American troops and war materiel began arriving in Europe later in 1917, it unalterably shifted the balance of power in favor of the Allies. A final German offensive began on May 21, 1918, an attempt to win the war before the full weight of American strength could arrive. The Spring Offensive (also called the Ludendorff Offensive and the Kaiser’s Battle) sputtered out when German supply vehicles couldn’t keep up with the rapidly advancing soldiers across the broken, cratered battleground, and the Kaiser’s troops were left in poor defensive positions. An Allied operation that became known as the Hundred Days Offensive pushed the enemy back to the German border by September. Germany’s allies began their own peace negotiations.
The German navy mutinied. Ludendorff, architect of many German victories in the east, was dismissed. Riots broke out, often led by German Bolsheviks. Prince Max, Chancellor of Germany, authorized negotiations for peace terms and stipulated that both military and civilian representatives be involved. He then turned his title over to Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Socialist Democratic movement. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated on November 9. An agreement between the combatants called for all guns to fall silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Yet, even on the morning of November 11, before the designated time for the armistice to begin, some field officers ordered their men to make attacks, which accomplished little except more bloodshed.
A series of peace treaties were signed between the combatant nations, but the most significant was the Treaty of Versailles, signed on July 28, 1919, five years after Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. Germany had hoped Woodrow Wilson would be a moderating factor that would allow for more generous peace terms, but the nations that had lost millions of young men to the weapons of the Central Powers were in no mood to be forgiving. As a result of the various treaties, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled. Austria-Hungary was broken into separate nations and forced to cede lands to successor states such as Czechoslovakia. Bulgaria was limited to a 20,000-man army, denied any aircraft or submarines and ordered to pay reparations over a 35-year period. Germany was restricted to a standing army of just 100,000 men, denied possession of certain weapons such as tanks, forced to pay reparations to its former enemies and give up all of its overseas colonies as well as some of its territories in Europe. In the coming years Germans would brood over the harsh terms and seek not only to overturn them but to inflict punishment on the nations that demanded them.
All combatant nations had concealed from their people the true extent of casualties during the war, but in Germany, where Hindenburg and Ludendorff were given control over virtually all aspects of civilian life as well as over the military, any negative reports about what was happening at the front were considered “defeatist” and were prohibited. Accordingly, much of the population believed it when they were told Germany was winning the war. The country’s sudden capitulation left them shocked and bewildered. Hindenburg claimed that the German soldier had been winning the war but was “stabbed in the back” by civilians who overthrew the monarchy. The popular old soldier was elected president of Germany, and his “stabbed in the back” myth was used to great effect by a rising political star, Adolf Hitler.
Articles Featuring World War I From History Net Magazines
Point of View: What a Century! Observing the Centenary of the First World War, by Michael S. Nieberg
Historians have a love-hate relationship with major anniversaries of historic events. The anniversaries bring new attention to a subject and offer a chance to educate the public, but they often become tainted by politics and dealt with in a superficial fashion.
World War I Resources
Historian Michael Neiberg recommends five books and three websites for those seeking to learn more about World War I
First Shot of World War I, by Christopher Clark
An excerpt from The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Rolls-Royce Armored Car: The Bulletproof Ghost, by Jim Motavalli
A luxury car becomes an effective armored fighting vehicle.
Interview with Gary Sheffeld
Professor Gary Sheffield, chair of War Studies at Britain’s University of Birmingham and a former instructor at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and at the British Joint Services Command and Staff College. Author of Forgotten Victory: The First World War, Myths and Realities, in this interview he answers questions about that conflict.
An International Red Line, by Christopher A. Warren
Following World War I the international community had intense debate over whether poison gas should remain a legitimate weapon of war or be banned.
The Carpathian Winter War, 1915, by Graydon A. Tunstall
Little Soldiers: A French photojournalist captures Paris children playing at war in the dark days of World War I, by Jennifer Berry
Includes 10 of Leon Gimpel’s photographs of children in Paris as they played at war while a real war raged in the world outside the city.
Veterans Day: History of a Symbol, by Karen Sutherland
A 15-line poem written in just 20 minutes became an enduring symbol because it speaks volumes about those who lost their lives near Ypres, Belgium.
The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher M. Clark, and July 1914: Countdown to War, by Sean MeMeekin
The Great War Seen From the Air: In Flanders Fields, 1914
The Making of the First World War, by Ian F.W. Beckett
War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War, by William Philpott
Naval Aviation in the First World War: It’s Impact and Influence, by R.D. Layman
A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, by Geoffrey Wawro
More World War I Articles
More World War I Articles
Audio: The Incredible Story Of Sgt. Stubby, The World War I Service DogNancy Furstinger, author of 'Paws of Courage: True Tales of Heroic Dogs that Protect and Serve' tells the amazing story of Sgt Stubby, a World War I hero.
Ten Notable Women of World War ITen women whose roles in WW1 brought them praise. Some received medals. Some gave their lives.
Did Germany’s Allies Send Troops to the Western Front in WW1?Hello, During World War One on the Western Front I know from my military history that the Allies, Britain and France not only had units from their own countries and colonies but even Imperial Russian, then under the rule of Czar Nicholas, provided a token force in that theatre of war and perhaps even Imperial …
Two Deaths Led to the Deaths of MillionsThe deaths of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, sparked a war in which millions would die.
Defenders Lodge – Accessible Lodging for Veterans During Medical TreatmentA new facility provides lodging for veterans and caregivers during times of medical treatment.
Three World War 1 QuestionsDear Mr. History I have three questions about World War 1. It would be great if i could receive an answer on each but it would still be extremely helpful if you had time less. Anyway, I’m wondering: 1. Imperialism and Nationalism are the two main causes for WW1, but when, where and how do …
The Carpathian Winter War, 1915The "Stalingrad of World War I" was an epic bloodletting between the million-man armies of Russia and the inept Habsburg Empire
MHQ Reviews: The Great War Seen From the AirA marvel of a book reproduces and explain the most interesting early aerial images of WWI Flanders, showing us what the war looked like from above
American GasLate in WWI the U.S. Army developed its own deadly chemical weapons, which still haunt a D.C. neighborhood
MHQ Reviews: War of AttritionA fast-moving, richly detailed history of World War I
MHQ Reviews: A Mad CatastropheGeoffrey Wawro offers a fascinating addition to the military and diplomatic scholarship surrounding Austria-Hungary’s inept move toward war
Battling Beast DebutsThe first airplane to emerge from the new restoration hangar at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center was unveiled to the public on April 1: the Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver
Waiting for the Candy BomberSpirit of Freedom is one of hundreds of aircraft that delivered more than 200,000 tons of food and fuel during the airlift.
Kermit’s Curtiss-WrightsThe Curtiss-Wright CW-19 is a rare representative of the transitional days when U.S. aviation stepped fully into the mid-20th century.
What was the First “World War”?Dear Mr History, What and when was the first “world war,” in that fighting took place across all continents (excluding Antarctica)? Thanks, Mitchell ? ? ? Given the amount of global venues where the British and French navies fought, the Seven Years War (1756-1763) is often cited as the first world war worthy of the term. …
Mark I Lewis Gun: The Allies’ Mobile EqualizerDesigned by Americans and introduced by the British, the Lewis proved the most reliable and versatile Allied light machine gun of World War I.
The “Man of Force” Who Saved BelgiumBefore Herbert Hoover became the scapegoat for the Great Depression, he was an international hero who led one of the greatest humanitarian relief efforts in history
Mil Mi-24 Hind: A Russian Gunship With AttitudeDespite is susceptibility to Stingers, the Mi-24 assault gunship packs a sting of its own and has proved an enduring war machine.
What If Penicillin Had Not Been Developed?Without the mass-production of penicillin, thousands of personnel escaped death or amputation.
Adapting to Chemical Weapons in World War IGerman soldiers lay out lead pipes for releasing poison gas as the prelude to an assault on the Allied trench line in August 1917. The first chlorine gas attacks in April 1915 were spewed from canisters, but the vagaries of the wind and weather made that method of dispersal impracticable. (National Archives) A German 170mm …
USS Leviathan aka SS Vaterland(U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command via Stephen Harding) A drawing of the dazzle camouflage pattern devised for Leviathan, used for reference in painting up the actual vessel. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command via Stephen Harding) While troops board from one side, a coal barge loads fuel aboard Leviathan. Until mechanical lifts were available, …
An International Red LineWhy chemical weapons are taboo
What a Century! Observing the Centenary of the First World WarHistorian and U.S. Army War College professor Michael S. Neiberg explains why the centenary of the First World War matters more than most
Spanish StorkEmilio Garcia-Conde's Fieseler Fi-156 "Storch" in Spanish Civil War Nationalist markings. For all its warlike mien and malevolent insignia, the Luftwaffe version of the Fieseler Fi-156 Storch (Stork) is somehow charming—all gawky gear legs, gaping overbite engine cowling, the cabin glazing of a tomato-grower’s greenhouse and an Argus inverted V8 that idles like a John …
First Shot of World War IHow seven bumbling terrorists nearly failed to carry out the 1914 murder in Sarajevo that sparked a global conflict
Was There a Crime in the Tragedy of the Great War?Two new books weigh the accountability of the European powers in bringing about the First World War
Were there plans for a Marine division in World War I?In World War 1, had Germany kept fighting did the Marine Corps have any plan on activating a full division? Also, was there ever any plan to activate a 7th Marine Div and or a 6th Marine Air wing if Japan had to be invaded in World War 2? John ? ? ? Dear John, …
World War I Intrigue: German Spies in New York!On the eve of America’s entry into World War I, saboteurs plotted—and carried out—attacks on the U.S. home front
The Gun That Should Have Changed EverythingAn 1864 battle in Denmark foretold the advent of mechanized death
Who was the highest ranking officer killed in action during World War I?Who was the highest ranking officer killed in action during World War I?
Shooting Down the Legend of the Red Baron’s TriplaneDespite its enduring fame, the Red Baron’s slow, crash-prone plane was no great fighting machine.
‘Great War in the Air’ – Interview with Documentary-Maker Jan GoldsteinSelf-taught filmmaker Jan Goldstein got tired of waiting for someone to make an in-depth documentary about pilots and planes of World War I and created 'The Great War in the Air' on his own.
by Jennifer D. Keene
Understanding World War I is perhaps more important than ever. The war, quite simply, shaped the world in which we live. The conflict also presented Americans with challenges remarkably similar to those confronting contemporary American society. The centennial of the war has spurred a flurry of new scholarly works and has garnered much media attention. Yet many historians still remain largely uncertain about the war's importance for the United States. The centennial offers an ideal moment to clarify the war's role in the development of the nation and to integrate the war more fully into the broader narrative of U.S. history.
Defining exactly how World War I changed American society remains difficult, in part because the answer is complex. Another difficulty arises when historians compare (as they inevitably do) the American experience to the longer, bloodier, and more socially disruptive war that Europe fought. Because the war was so obviously traumatic for Europe, these comparisons tend to obscure the harder-to-see impact of World War I on the United States.
Recent scholarship, however, underscores how the war transformed American society and why the war is relevant for understanding our contemporary world. Many of the most recent trends in World War I scholarship stem from the post-9/11 political, cultural, and social environment, which has encouraged scholars to examine World War I with fresh eyes. 9/11 was a turning point for the nation that changed governmental policies and Americans' conception of their role in the world. The same was true of World War I. Then, as now, overseas conflicts and the actions of authoritarian regimes suddenly threatened the security and well-being of Americans. Then, as now, citizens vigorously debated whether the war was America's to fight and ultimately embraced war in the name of both humanitarianism and self-defense. There are further, rather striking, parallels. Internal threats from potential terrorist cells located within the United States justified an unprecedented abridgement of civil rights, prompting disagreements over the right way to handle internal subversion. Poorly equipped men were sent into battle, and the nation failed to prepare adequately for their return home.
In this essay I review some of the recent scholarship on the war and how it is changing the way we think about the American experience in World War I. Recently, scholars of the war have re-examined Woodrow Wilson's foreign policies, investigated American humanitarian intervention overseas, established the war as a turning point in the long civil rights movement, evaluated the coercive aspects of home-front war culture, considered the role of women during the war years, investigated the battlefield with an eye on the enlisted man's experience, and examined the difficulties of war veterans coming home.
Woodrow Wilson and Wilsonianism
It is impossible to disentangle the story of how the United States entered the war and negotiated the peace without considering the personality, decision-making, and rhetoric of the nation's twenty-eighth president. A recent major biography of Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009), takes up the reasons why the United States went to war and the genesis of Wilson's peace proposals. Cooper contends that by 1917 Wilson believed that the United States needed to take an active part in the fighting to earn a leading role at the peace table.(1) However, Cooper concludes that the American military contribution was too minor for Wilson to dictate the terms of peace. The United States' unwillingness to join the League of Nations ultimately doomed Wilson's vision of using a system of collective security to safeguard world peace.
In contrast, Ross A. Kennedy's The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America's Strategy for Peace and Security (2009) offers a national-security explanation for Wilson's eventual decision to lead the country into war. Kennedy argues that Wilson increasingly saw a German victory as a threat to America's ability to steer clear of European power politics. Traditional accounts of U.S. entry into the war, he contends, overemphasize the importance of U.S. trade with the Allies or Wilson's missionary zeal to spread democracy. Kennedy instead believes that with the naval war bringing the war ever closer to American shores, Wilson wanted to rebuild the international political system to protect the United States from the global reverberations of European power struggles.(2) Kennedy emphasizes the flaws in Wilson's collective-security vision, which required all nations of the world to see war anywhere as a threat to their own national interests. He nonetheless notes the long shadow that Wilson's views cast over American foreign policy throughout the twentieth century.
Erez Manuela takes the debate over Wilsonianism in a new direction by investigating how the colonized world responded to Wilsonian ideals in The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (2007).(3) Manuela investigates how intellectuals in Egypt, India, China, and Korea harnessed Wilson's phrases of "self-determination" and "consent of the governed" to create the intellectual basis for nascent anticolonial movements. Those interpretations often departed quite dramatically from what Wilson intended and illustrate the power of words and ideas to move world history.
From Manuela's perspective, the failure of international liberalism lay in its refusal to embrace the principle of equality of nations inherent in Wilsonian rhetoric, rather than the American failure to join the League of Nations (Cooper's view) or the flawed concept of collective security (Kennedy's view). Debates over Wilson and Wilsonianism clearly remain very much alive.(4) Despite their disagreements, all three historians assert that Wilsonianism had far-reaching consequences for American foreign policy and America's rise as a world power. Whether Wilsonianism represents a desirable or attainable ideal will continue to be debated as the United States seeks to make the post-9/11 world safer for its citizens.
Another intriguing new trend in World War I scholarship involves reconsidering the traditional chronology of the era. The most common chronology divides the war years into a period of neutrality racked by debates over potential American involvement in the war, followed by the war years of active engagement. Discussion of the war then ends with the Senate's refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Recent scholarship, however, rejects this chronology.
Julia F. Irwin and John Branden Little challenge the prevailing view of 1914–1917 as a time of neutrality—if by neutrality one means non-involvement.(5) They contend that the strong trading and financial ties between the Allies and U.S. industrial and banking elites suggest only a fraction of the monetary, emotional, and physical engagement of American citizens in the war. Examining the humanitarian efforts of groups such as the Red Cross and the Commission for Relief in Belgium, Irwin and Little suggest that millions of Americans sought to define an active, humanitarian role for the United States in the international arena. In particular, Little chides historians for overlooking the $6 billion American humanitarian relief effort to alleviate civilian suffering in Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Near East from 1914 to 1924. In Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation's Humanitarian Awakening (2013), Irwin underscores the lasting impact of voluntary humanitarian work during World War I, which in her view established the widespread societal belief that citizen-initiated foreign aid benefited both the world and the United States. "The matter of American international humanitarianism is as vital now as it was in the Great War era. By understanding its history, we can better determine the role that foreign aid should play in U.S. relations with the world today," Irwin writes, noting that Americans then and now disagreed over whether foreign relief projects should be an alternative to, or in support of, military engagement.(6)
Recent scholarship also suggests that traditional accounts have concluded the story of the war too early. Ending with the failed ratification of the Treaty of Versailles curtails appreciation for how long and fervently the war's repercussions reverberated throughout American society. Taking their cue from the dynamic European scholarly debate over commemoration and mourning, several scholars have written pathbreaking accounts of how the war's memory shaped American society. For example, Lisa M. Budreau has contributed to a revised view of the war's cultural impact by tracing the creation of overseas military cemeteries. She contends that the "American way of remembrance" set the model for how the nation buried and honored war dead from that point onward.(7) Mark Whalen and Steven Trout have examined the forms that remembrance took, focusing on both artistic expression and popular culture.(8) Their research reveals the difficulty of establishing one unified memory of the war in a society fractured by race, class, and ethnicity. Americans remembered the war in multiple, and often contradictory, ways. These disagreements made it hard to establish a clear, satisfying war narrative to repeat to future generations; another reason why Americans today have a hard time understanding World War I's place in American history.
There were also political, not just cultural, ramifications. Stephen R. Ortiz and I have researched the impact of veteran political activism in the postwar period.(9) Ortiz argues that the 1932 Bonus March incorporated World War I veterans into the left-leaning political coalition of New Deal dissidents who pushed President Franklin D. Roosevelt to embrace income redistribution programs such as Social Security. I focus on the links between the bonus crusade and the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, arguing that the law represented a final attempt to distill lessons from the past twenty years of tumultuous veteran political activism. By granting World War II veterans comprehensive educational, housing, and unemployment benefits, the government recognized the error of sending World War I veterans home with little more than the clothes on their backs. A legacy of World War I, the G.I. Bill set the benchmark against which future veteran homecomings would be measured.
The missteps after World War I included inadequate care for wounded veterans, even as veterans gained permanent access to federally funded healthcare in veterans' hospitals. Attaining the veneer of normality became the guiding ethos of veteran rehabilitation. In War's Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America (2011), Beth Linker notes that President George W. Bush was often photographed jogging with amputee war veterans. In both World War I and the present day, repairing dismembered bodies with prosthetic devices created and creates "the momentary illusion that there is no human cost of war—that there is no 'waste' in war," Linker writes.(10)
Taken together, this scholarship underscores the long involvement of Americans in the war and its reverberations in American society. It makes a strong case for the war's importance by connecting the war to pivotal historic transformations in the twentieth century, such as the rise of international humanitarianism, the development of the commemoration landscape, the potency of veteran political activism, the passage of key social welfare legislation in the 1930s and 1940s, and the creation of a federal medical bureaucracy dedicated to the care of veterans.
The War State
Our post-9/11 preoccupation with government surveillance of potential terrorist groups and the abrogation of civil liberties has prompted renewed historical attention to the growth of state power in the World War I era, when the nation mobilized to fight its first modern, total war. The scholarship in this area reinterprets the era as a pivotal moment in state-society relations, and the scholarly debate centers on how much citizens resisted or abetted the war-fueled expansion of state power.
During World War I the United States broke with its tradition of relying primarily on volunteers and used conscription to raise the bulk of its military force. Jeannette Keith's Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War (2004) takes a grassroots approach to studying draft resistance in the rural South. The creative means that men devised to evade the draft impresses Keith more than the centralization of state police power.(11) In Good Americans: Italian and Jewish Immigrants during the First World War (2003), Christopher M. Sterba challenges the longstanding assumption that nativist demands for complete assimilation (100% Americanism) defined the immigrant experience during the war. Sterba argues that Italian and Jewish immigrants, both on the home front and overseas, used the war to assimilate into mainstream culture on their own terms.
In contrast to Keith's and Sterba's emphasis on the haphazard application of state coercive power, Christopher Capozzola's Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (2008) argues that the modern surveillance state took shape during World War I. He sees the willingness of local communities to cooperate with federal directives as essential to the government's success in mobilizing for war. Capozzola coins the term "coercive voluntarism" to describe how local civic groups secured their communities' compliance with wartime edicts on food conservation, the purchases of liberty bonds, and dissent. Self-policing by community leaders on the local and state level, Capozzola contends, helped the federal government create a culture of patriotic obligation that successfully pressured citizens to provide manpower, material, and food. Even more importantly, World War I militarized the notion of citizenship, forever linking civic rights to the male obligation to serve. The present-day requirement that all male residents between the ages of 18 to 25, citizen and immigrant alike, register for selective service perpetuates this notion.
The Long Civil Rights Movement
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments represented tremendous civil rights achievements. However, civil rights activists were disappointed when Wilson's war for democracy failed to topple Jim Crow at home. For a long time, the historiography ended there. Recent histories, however, argue that the war was a pivotal moment when new militancy, ideologies, members, and strategies infused the civil rights movement.
In Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I (2009), Adrianne Lentz- Smith traces how African American soldiers and their civilian advocates experienced a rising political consciousness. Within the black community, wartime committees sold liberty bonds, publicized food conservation measures, and recruited volunteers. Lentz-Smith contends that those wartime committees served as incubators in which future civil rights leaders learned how to organize, publicize, and fund community-based grassroots campaigns. In Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (2010), Chad L. Williams investigates the extensive postwar activism of African American veterans, emphasizing the role they played as symbols and leaders within the civil rights movement. In several articles, I trace how military service served as a vehicle for politicizing black soldiers and consider the structural, not just ideological, opportunities for soldiers to organize. I also examine how civil rights activists took up the banner of equal medical treatment for black veterans as a strategy to advance the entire civil rights movement.(12)
These works balance an acknowledgement of the state's coercive power and pervasive racial violence with narratives that emphasize individual agency and empowerment. The predominant narrative now focuses more on movement building than it does short-term successes, which were few and far between. The recent historiography thus depicts World War I as a formative moment in the long civil rights movement, demonstrating the importance of activism by the World War I generation for the civil rights successes of the 1950s and 1960s. Then, as now, civil rights activists embraced the goal of creating an American democracy in which black lives mattered.
Writing Women into the History of the War
The 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, guarantees the World War I era a prominent place in historical works devoted to the suffrage movement. Yet the most innovative recent histories focus less on the national suffrage movement and more on incorporating the story of female leadership into the main narrative of the war. This scholarship makes it impossible to disentangle the history of the war from women's history: one cannot be understood without the other.
Capozzola and Lentz-Smith, for instance, discuss how middle-class women who belonged to an array of social clubs became essential grassroots organizers, mobilizing white and black communities across the nation to support the war. Irwin details a different sort of political awakening among women by focusing on their humanitarian relief work, often initiated to help women overseas. Moderate-leaning suffragists found multiple ways to use the war to their advantage. The service of women on federal wartime committees organized by the Food Administration, the Department of the Treasury, and the War Department helped normalize the sight of women exercising political power. On the local level, suffragists blended calls for the vote into their voluntary patriotic activities, as they promoted victory gardens and recruited volunteers for the Red Cross.(13)
In Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War (2008), Kimberly Jensen offers a less sanguine vision of female advancement during the war, exploring how violence against women became accepted as a legitimate method of controlling unruly women who protested loudly and directly (such as striking female workers and radical suffragists who picketed the White House). Military officials often looked the other way when U.S. soldiers assaulted female nurses and military workers. Jensen recovers that history of violence against women, seeing the fight for full-fledged citizenship as a struggle to both protect the female body and acquire the right to vote. Her portrait of gendered violence within the armed forces is especially timely given the recent revelations that rape and sexual harassment are too often experienced by female service members.
A New Look at the Battlefield
Violence was a defining characteristic of the World War I experience for civilian and soldier, male and female, black and white. New studies of the battlefield underscore the brutality of combat, while simultaneously investigating the learning curve that the U.S. army experienced as it fought on the western front. The fighting man's experience forms the center of these new approaches, which all seek to better understand the mindset and actions of those sent into battle.
Rather than focusing on generals and their staffs, Mark E. Grotelueschen's The AEF Way of War: The American Army and Combat in World War I (2006) and Edward G. Lengel's To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 (2008) argue that the most substantial and effective learning on the battlefield occurred from the bottom up. The authors contend that improved decision and war-making capacities within companies and divisions enabled the entire army to improve its combat effectiveness against the German army. In Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I (2005), Carol R. Byerly considers a different foe, the influenza virus, which killed nearly as many American soldiers as enemy weapons. Byerly challenges the conventional narrative that traffic congestion and straggling during the Meuse-Argonne battle revealed ineptness and a reluctance to fight. Reinterpreting those events through the prism of the epidemic, she suggests that the onslaught of the flu sent a stream of victims to the rear to seek care.
Learning to cooperate with allies and one another served as another important adjustment to modern warfare for both generals and enlisted men. Robert Bruce's A Fraternity of Arms: America and France in the Great War (2003) and Mitchell Yockelson's Borrowed Soldiers: Americans under British Command, 1918 (2008) emphasize that the United States fought as part of an Allied coalition. In Doughboys, The Great War, and the Remaking of America (2001), I argue that discipline was often negotiated, rather than coerced, and thus gave enlisted men the power to shape the disciplinary structure of the military. Collecting and evaluating enlisted men's opinions became standard practice in the military during World War I. To this day, the military employs large numbers of sociologists and psychologists who administer survey after survey to devise manpower policies that the enlisted population will accept.
The World War I era is a rich and vibrant field of study. Challenging old paradigms, the new scholarship underscores how the war permanently transformed individuals, social movements, politics, foreign policy, culture, and the military. The historical scholarship connects the war to key issues in twentieth-century American history: the rise of the United States as a world power, the success of social justice movements, and the growth of federal power. Collectively, historians of the war make a compelling case for why the war matters in American history.
The experiences of Americans during World War I also offer important insights into our own times. Today we wonder about the ongoing relevance of Wilsonian ideals in guiding U.S. foreign policy, debate whether our humanitarian efforts do more harm than good, worry about the Patriot Act and government surveillance programs as we fight a war on terror, and lament the readjustment difficulties of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Keeping Americans "safe from terror" still goes hand in hand with making "the world safe for democracy." Defining an unambiguous and uncontested place for the war in the mainstream American historical narrative depends on disseminating these insights more broadly to the American public and in history classrooms.
JENNIFER D. KEENE is professor of history and chair of the history department at Chapman University. She has published extensively on American involvement in the First World War. Her works include Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America (2001) and World War I: The American Soldier Experience (2006). She is also lead author for the textbook Visions of America: A History of the United States (2009). She is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
(1) John Milton Cooper Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009).
(2) Ross A. Kennedy, The Will to Believe: Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and America's Strategy for Peace and Security (2009).
(3) Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (2007).
(4) See for example the collection of historiographical essays examining Wilson and the war years in A Companion to Woodrow Wilson, ed. Ross A. Kennedy (2013).
(5) John Branden Little, "Band of Crusaders: American Humanitarians, the Great War, and the Remaking of the World" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkley, 2009).
(6) Julia F. Irwin, Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation's Humanitarian Awakening (2013), 212.
(7) Lisa M. Budreau, Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919–1933 (2010).
(8) Steven Trout, On the Battlefields of Memory: The First World War and American Remembrance, 1919–1941 (2010). Mark Whalen, The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro (2008).
(9) Stephen R. Ortiz, In Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill: How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era (2010). Jennifer D. Keene, Doughboys, the Great War and the Remaking of America (2001).
(10) Beth Linker, War's Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America (2011), 181.
(11) Jeannette Keith, Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War (2004).
(12) Jennifer D. Keene, "The Long Journey Home: African American World War I Veterans and Veteran Policies," in Veterans' Policies, Veterans' Politics: New Perspectives on Veterans in the Modern United States, ed. Stephen R. Ortiz (2012), 146–72. Jennifer D. Keene, "Protest and Disability: A New Look at African American Soldiers during the First World War," in Warfare and Belligerence: Perspectives in First World War Studies, ed. Pierre Purseigle (2005), 215–42.
(13) Elizabeth York Enstam, "The Dallas Equal Suffrage Association, Political Style, and Popular Culture: Grassroots Strategies of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1913–1919," Journal of Southern History, 68 (Nov. 2002), 817–48.