World War I was sparked by the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife by a Serbian activist. But the seeds of the horrific fouryear conflict that engulfed and devastated much of the world were sown years earlier.
The countries of Europe had made a tangled web of alliances, but there were ongoing territorial disputes. France wanted the coal-rich Alsace-Lorraine area back from the Germans — they had lost it in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Germany wanted greater power and influence. Russia worried that Austria wanted to annex (takeover) Serbia. The tsar (ruler) of Russia hoped that war would unify his country and stop talk of political change.
By the time Archduke Ferdinand was killed, many European countries were preparing to go to war. The Allied Powers (mainly France, Russia, Britain and its dominions — Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa) stood together against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and eventually the Ottoman Empire).
In a strange twist, many of the rulers of these countries were related. King George V of England was the first cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Because they were cousins, no one thought they would go to war. But they did.
The war started when Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia on July 28, 1914. At first, no one thought it was going to be a long war. It began with optimism, dreams of battlefield glory and national fervor. On August 1, Germany, an ally of Austria-Hungary, declared war on Russia. On August 3, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium. The Germans hoped that a decisive victory over France would end the war quickly. But the Germans were stopped by the Allied forces at the Battle of the Marne.
A new front opened up when the Ottoman Empire entered the fray. Russia left the war in 1918 during the Russian Revolution. The United States was neutral until 1917, but it helped supply the Allied forces with arms and materials.
The war was an everchanging, slow-moving series of attacks and counterattacks, small battles and larger ones, with no one winning decisively. Much of the war was spent slowly picking off the enemy, a few soldiers at a time and waiting for the next skirmish. Many soldiers died of disease or sniper bullets while they were holed up in filthy, rat-infested trenches waiting for the next battle or enemy encounter.
By 1917, the Allied forces were running low on supplies and men. Many had died in the daily encounters across the “no-man’s-land” that separated the opposing forces. The Allies hoped that the Americans would enter the war and assist them with soldiers and supplies. America finally joined the Allies in April, after German submarines sank U.S. merchant ships and the Zimmerman Telegram was intercepted. It revealed that Germany was trying to get Mexico to join them, which would have been a big threat to the United States.
The German army was close to defeat by August 1918 after a series of prolonged, intense battles with the Allies. The Germans agreed to an armistice (end of fighting) on November 11 and were forced to retreat within their borders.
When World War I ended officially on November 11, 1918, more than 37 million soldiers were dead or wounded. It was known for its brutal trench warfare. Millions of civilians died, too, through starvation, disease or military action.
People hoped it was the “war to end all wars,” but 21 years later another world war broke out (page 88). Even the League of Nations, established after World War I to settle disagreements peacefully, was unable to keep the peace.