November 11, 1918 – WWI (then called “The War to End All Wars”) officially ended as Germany signed an armistice agreement in France.
The second half of the 19th century saw the development of nation building in Europe. Germany and Italy became unified states, European nations expanded their empires into the developing world, and every country’s military became more and more industrialized. Following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, resulting in the French loss of the valuable Alsace-Lorraine region to the new unified Germany, all major European powers embarked on modernization programs for their armed forces.
This increasing militarization accelerated in the first decade and a half of the 20th century. What developed was an arms race, as the major European powers built new and more deadly weaponry, grew their navies, and drew up plans for massive mobilization of their soldiers at a moment’s notice. The guiding principal, it seemed, was not to be caught off guard, but rather to be able to quickly and massively respond to any threat from a neighboring state. At the same time, all European nations were bound by a series of alliances to try to maintain some sort of a balance of power on the Continent and to negate the possibility of war- or so they thought. By 1914, the militaries of Europe’s major powers – Germany, France, England, and Russia – were literally on a hair trigger.
That trigger was pulled on June 28, 1914 by an event in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, then controlled by the Austria-Hungarian Empire, an ally of Germany. Serbian nationalists (who were angry with the Empire’s control of Bosnia and Croatia) assassinated the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie. Austria-Hungarian authorities reacted with violent reprisals against Serbs in Bosnia and, on July 28, declared war on Serbia, ordering a mobilization of its army. Russia, a Serbian ally, came to Serbia’s defense, declaring war on Austria-Hungary on Jul 30, mobilizing its forces. Germany, an ally of Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia the next day, August 1, and mobilized its army as well.
These mobilizations were the key to the start of the war. Every country had drawn up timetables using their nation’s trains to transport troops to the front lines, and those schedules were timed to the minute. Any delay in mobilizing meant a corresponding delay in getting troops into position to repel an attack. Every attacking plan depended on getting their soldiers mobilized and at the front first, and every defensive plan required mobilizing in time to get their soldiers to the front before the attacking army. This meant that, once an enemy nation mobilized its army, any nation at risk of attack needed to mobilize their army as well, or risk being overrun.
The German mobilization meant that France, Germany’s rival, could not afford to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, and Germany, if it were to prevent France from being a problem, needed to attack France first. Germany declared war on France on August 3 and on Belgium on August 4, resulting in England declared war on Germany on August 4. The war had begun, and the mobilizations of millions of soldiers, all now rapidly being transported to the front lines, meant that nobody would be able to stop it.
Fighting began in Serbia, with the Serbian army managing to beat back the Austria-Hungarian army in a major upset. In September, the main German army pushed into France from Belgium and Luxemburg (which they easily swept through) but were pushed back at the First Battle of the Marne by French and British forces. In the East, an invasion by Russia into Germany failed miserably, and from there on a kind of stalemate settled in.
Over the course of the next year, hundreds of miles of zigzagging trenches were dug between the armies in the west, stretching from the Belgium coast down to the Swiss border. This became the main theater of battle, as over the next few years millions of soldiers faced each other from their respective trenches – sometimes only a few hundred years apart – breaking up the monotony only to launch poorly planned, pointless and ineffective attacks at each other. Casualties racked up into the millions at massacres known as the Battle of Verdun, the Battle of the Somme, and the Second Battle of the Marne.
Fighting was not limited to the “Western Front.” In the Balkans, Bulgaria joined the “Axis powers” (Austria-Hungary and Germany) in 1915, helping to defeat Serbia. In 1918, however, Greece joined with the “allies” (England, France, Russia, and eventually the US) and defeated Bulgaria. Italy joined the War in 1915 on the Ally side, fighting on its northern border with the Austria-Hungarian Empire.
The Ottoman Empire, which joined the Axis, held off Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli in 1915, but after that suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Russians, British, and local Arab leaders, who had sided with the English (the Turks were able to use the war as cover for their murder of over 1.5 million Armenians, however, in the first genocide of the 20th century). Fighting also raged in West Africa between German and British African colonial allies.
In the East, after a series of devastating battlefield defeats, Russia’s problems became internal. Massive popular protests at home led to the abdication of the Russian Tsar, Nicholas, and the installation of Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks (communists) as head of the Russian government. In 1918, in order to end an unpopular war and consolidate power at home, Lenin’s government signed a treaty with Germany agreeing to cede vast areas of land and end its part in the War.
Fighting raged at sea as well, as the British and German navies fought for naval supremacy. An English victory over the German navy at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 decided that outcome, but through the war German submarines, known as U-boats, continued to engage in submarine warfare, mostly attacking merchant ships bringing supplies to England. It would be these attacks which ultimately brought the US into the War, in 1917, on behalf of the allies.
In 1917 the War was a mess. Millions had already died, and the bloody stalemate seemed as though it would never end. There were mass mutinies on the French side. Austria-Hungary tried to make a secret peace deal with France without letting Germany know, and when the proposal was exposed it caused a major rift between the two main Axis powers. Even the Pope tried to broker a peace deal with no success.
What did finally change the outcome was the entry of the US into the war in 1917, on the side of the Allies. The US, which had stayed out of the conflict, was finally goaded in by two events. One was the continued attacks on US shipping to England by German U-boats. The other was an intercepted telegram (called the “Zimmerman Telegram”) sent by Germany to Mexico offering to help them regain California, Texas and the Southwest if they joined Germany in the War. The American public outcry was, understandably, enough to push Congress to declare war on Germany (Mexico, for its part, stayed out). Entry of the US meant a million fresh soldiers for the Allies at a time when the Axis was exhausted.
In the spring of 1918 Germany tried one last push, launching a major offensive which met with early success. The German army got within 75 miles of Paris before they were finally stopped and eventually pushed back to where they had started from, losing over 250,000 men in the failed attempt. From there the allies launched a blistering counter-attack that continued to push the devastated German army further and further back to the German border. Germany was cut off from supplies, its army was battered, and in October the German Navy mutinied rather than fight.
On November 9 the Kaiser (Germany’s King) was removed from power, and on November 11, 1918, a full armistice, ending the fighting, was signed to the relief of millions. That armistice, signed at 5:00 am, took full effect at 11:00 am (the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month). As an perfect microcosm of the massive stupidity of the entire war, over 10,000 Allied and Axis soldiers (including nearly 3.000 Americans) were killed or wounded in fighting on the morning of November 11, as Allied officers ordered continued assaults up to 11:00 am even though they fully knew that the armistice had been signed and was to take imminent effect. Men died fighting over land they could peacefully walk on an hour later, and their officers knew it. In fact, more men died that day on both sides than on the entirety of D-Day.
The four years of fighting had left nearly 10 million soldiers dead, another 20 million wounded, and an additional 8 million civilian deaths as well. An entire generation of young men had been obliterated in a war that had no point and nobody seemed able to stop from happening. Nations, like Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia collapsed; new nations, like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Hungary, were born out of the rubble; and former nations, like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, regained their former independence.
England and France, over the strenuous objections of the US, forced Germany to agree to humiliating and crippling terms in the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the War. Besides being forced to accept the blame for starting the War, Germany lost land, was forced to demilitarize, and had to pay billions of dollars in reparations to the allies. German leaders spread the myth that the Germany army had not lost but instead had been betrayed by Communists and Jews. The widespread belief in this absurd myth by Germans who refused to accept defeat, combined with the humiliation of Versailles and the economic depression to come in the 1930’s, led directly to the rise of the Nazi Party and WWII. The “War to End All Wars” was anything but.