The First World War (1914-1918) was a warfare between the great powers of the time, developed mainly in Europe.
Already in the 19th century, the first political tensions between the great European powers were forged. Economic development and protectionism made European states seek to expand to new territories. The colonies in Asia and Africa went on to become an important source of raw materials, as well as the expansion into new markets for European countries.
Blocks and countries that participated in the First World War
Two great blocks were those that faced each other in the Great War:
- Triple Entente: France, Great Britain and the United States, known as the Allies, fought on one side. Together with them Russia participated as an ally, but withdrew in 1917.
- Triple Alliance: On the opposite side were the so-called central empires of Austria-Hungary and Germany, also called "Central Axis." This block was later joined by Turkey and Bulgaria.
Causes of the First World War
Great Britain had reached a spectacular level of industrialization, becoming the great economic power. For its part, France, which also had a significant degree of industrialization. After resolving their colonial rivalries, both powers bet on understanding.
The origin of the First World War dates back to 1870. Germany, with its unification, had emerged as an economic colossus and a military rival to fear. With Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany no longer only sought to isolate France, but also sought to challenge Great Britain for hegemony.
Among the reasons that gave rise to this conflict, it should be mentioned that an arms race began. Germany established compulsory military service, while Great Britain opted for a smaller, but highly professionalized army. In turn, the technique was put at the service of war, creating new and deadly weapons such as submarines, machine guns and powerful battleships. In this sense, the large industrial companies saw how rearmament swelled their orders.
As armies increased and countries forged alliances to avoid becoming isolated, there was a great exaltation of nationalism. It should not be forgotten that the Balkans had become a great source of tension, as they were a powder keg that could light the fuse of a conflict on a planetary level. And it is that there were strong misgivings between Austria-Hungary and Russia for the control of the Balkans. Thus, the Russians needed the Balkans to have an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea.
The annexation of Bosnia Herzegovina by Austria Hungary would add fuel to the fire in an already complex geographical area. This was quite a provocation to Serbia and Russia, which were seeking a greater Slavic presence in the Balkans. This annexation by Austria Hungary was possible thanks to the support of its German allies.
Economic causes of the First World War
In 1873 there was a crisis that would end British economic supremacy and the free trade stage associated with the First Industrial Revolution. From this moment until the beginning of the 20th century, the Second Industrial Revolution took place, which was an economic advance for many of the countries that participated in the conflict.
Germany managed to overtake Great Britain in some strategic sectors such as steel and chemicals. The Second Industrial Revolution was characterized by industrial and financial concentration and the inauguration of a stage of economic protectionism. Consequently, the protectionist measures led to numerous conflicts and disagreements between the European powers, increasing the tension between them.
On the other hand, when Germany managed to position itself as a leading country in the aforementioned sectors, it decided to expand into international markets. The fleet of this nation was in disadvantage with the one of Great Britain, reason why they carried out a policy of naval constructions to unbalance the British monopoly of the seas. These measures carried out by Germany forced London to ally with France to form the Entente Cordiale on April 8, 1904. It is a non-aggression pact and regulation of colonial expansion between both countries.
When was the First World War?
An incident of fatal consequences on the fate of the world would answer the question of why the First World War occurred. The origin of the First World War dates back to June 28, 1914. Date in which Archduke Francisco Fernando of Austria was assassinated in the city of Sarajevo, which triggered World War I. Since a month later, on July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia. In the following two weeks, a wave of declarations of war broke out between European countries.
The perpetrator of the assassination was a pro-Serbian Bosnian named Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Young Bosnia organization. This organization was in favor of a Greater Serbia at the same time that it defended a Bosnia free from the yoke of Austria Hungary. In this way, the growing tension between Austria-Hungary and Serbia was moving inexorably towards war.
The diplomatic phase was underway and Germany was once again showing its firm support for Austria Hungary. For their part, the Russians sided with Serbia. The Serbs did not accept the whole of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum. The mobilizations of the armies began, and the successive declarations of war between countries. The First World War had broken out.
Stages of World War I
Here is a summary of the First World War and its different stages:
First War of Movements
Everyone expected the First World War to be an intense but rapid conflict. However, what was believed to last for weeks or months ended up going on for four long years.
The first war scenes were the territories of northern France, while on the eastern front, Germans and Austro-Hungarians fought against the Russians. Also the subsequent entry of Italy into the war together with the allies led to the opening of a front in northern Italy.
In the colonies, the Middle East would be the scene of fighting between the British and the Ottoman Empire. It should be noted that, on that front, the British officer known as Lawrence of Arabia would end up distinguishing himself in his fight against the Turkish forces, leading the Arabs in a war to free themselves from the Ottoman yoke.
The initial phase of the conflict was characterized by a war of rapid offensives. Despite the important German advance, which managed to sweep away the Belgian, French and British troops, they managed to contain the German avalanche in 1914. Special mention deserves the Battle of the Marne, where the French stopped the German advance and managed to save Paris.
Germany would achieve important military successes on the eastern front, proclaiming itself the winner against the Russian army at the Battle of Tannenberg. However, the war of movements had not helped Germany to achieve a quick victory. In fact, the German Empire had been bogged down in all-out fighting on the Eastern Front and the Western Front.
With the fronts stabilizing, Europe was crossed by endless trenches and barbed wire. The great powers had engaged in a war of attrition. In fact, colossal battles like Verdun (1916) and the Somme (1916) became a bloody example of what the First World War meant. Hundreds of thousands of men perished amid the barbed wire, unable to achieve significant territorial gains.
Fierce fighting was also being fought on the Turkish front, where French, British, Australian and New Zealand troops suffered a painful defeat at the hands of the Ottomans at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles.
While all this was happening, the industry was producing new and increasingly deadly weapons with which to wage war. Thus, warlike innovations such as combat aviation, tanks and submarines were introduced. Even chemical weaponry in the form of poisonous gas was used for the first time.
Second War of Movements
1917 was a decisive year in the development of the First World War. Russia’s departure as a result of the Russian Revolution was a severe blow to the Allies. However, the entry of the United States into the Great War meant a balloon of oxygen for countries like France and Great Britain, whose war effort had brought them to the brink of exhaustion.
In his quest to launch a decisive offensive that would bring Germany the final victory, Marshal Ludendorff, the great German warlord, ordered massive attacks on the Western Front in the spring of 1918. Despite the offensive putting the nation on the ropes. Entente, Germany exhausted its last resources and the Allies went on the attack in what was called the Hundred Days Offensive, sealing Germany’s ultimate defeat. Finally, on November 11, 1918, the German Empire requested an armistice near Compiegne.
Also in the Middle East, British and Commonwealth troops, supported by the Arabs, achieved a succession of important victories that led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Battles of World War I
During the course of the First World War, numerous battles were fought, among which the following stand out:
- Lemberg – August 23, 1914
- Marne – August 24, 1914
- Tannenberg – August 26, 1914
- Masurian Lakes – September 7, 1914
- Ypres – October 19, 1914
- Gallipoli – February 19, 1915
- Isonzo – June 23, 1915
- Verdun – February 21, 1916
- Jutland – May 31, 1916
- Somme – July 1, 1916
- Passchendaele – July 31, 1917
- Cambrai – November 20, 1917
Peace treaties and consequences of the First World War
After four years since the start of the Great War, the First World War had left between 9 and 10 million dead among the combatants alone, not to mention that millions of civilians had also perished. Vast tracts of land had been devastated in France, Belgium, and northeastern Italy.
The German people had ended up tired of the war, which cost Kaiser Wilhelm II the abdication. Demoralization and deprivation both at the front and the rear had taken their toll on the Germans, leaving them on the brink of social unrest. In this sense, the Spartacists intended to carry out a Soviet-style revolution. In fact, in January 1919, the German government, in the hands of the Social Democrats, crushed communist revolutions with the support of an irregular force known as the Freikorps.
As for the design of the peace accords, a very complex job lay ahead. The victorious countries of the First World War sought to impose harsh conditions, to such an extent that the defeated countries were excluded from participating in the peace accords. We are before the Treaty of Versailles.
In this way, Germany was forced to bear the costs of war reparations. Who insisted on weakening Germany was the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau who even said "Germany will pay."
Other sanctions that Germany would have to endure would be a more than considerable reduction in the size of its army, as well as the loss of Lorraine, Alsace and its entire colonial empire.
For his part, US President Wilson proposed the creation of the League of Nations, a precursor to the UN that should serve as a forum for dialogue to prevent future wars.
The peace treaties also meant the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Treaty of Saint Germain), breaking it up into various states: Austria, Hungary and giving rise to the creation of Yugoslavia. As for the Ottoman Empire, France and Great Britain divided an important part of their territories in the Middle East.
Economic consequences of the First World War
The mobilization of millions of men to fight in the trenches had enormous economic consequences. In fact, it was estimated that at least three workers were required to equip each soldier with the necessary weapons, supplies and equipment.
Unlike other wars, in which armies were supplied with whatever they found in their path, in World War I, the railroad allowed all the necessary provisions to be brought to the front.
The supply problems became palpable in all the countries that participated in the contest. Raw materials were scarce, rationing and other controls were imposed, not forgetting that great efforts were made to replace the workers who had gone to war. Hence, many women ended up filling jobs that men had vacated in factories.
Industry was key in the war effort and France had lost its most industrialized areas, which had fallen under German rule. For its part, Great Britain was highly dependent on US exports. Furthermore, the United States helped finance the cost of the war with its loans. It should be noted that the situation in Germany was particularly complex, as it was subject to a blockade.
The prices of basic necessities rose considerably and consumption was limited by the ration cards. In fact, the food shortages proved terribly damaging to morale in the rear.
If the pre-war years had been characterized by liberal capitalism, in World War I, the states came to take control of the economy. In this way, the states set prices, took regulatory measures in the markets, and controlled production.
Thanks to the outbreak of the conflict, the economy of the neutral countries would take off due to the increase in their exports. And it is that, the contenders managed to supply themselves thanks to the exports of the neutral states. An example is the case of Spain, where its heavy and textile industry stood out, as well as the merchant marine.