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By Muhammad Tegar Al Firdausy's Blog

World War I

Minggu, 25 Juli 2010

In the summer of 1914 war broke out in Central Europe after the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated. Within days, that war had spread around the world, with fighting on almost every continent. The war lasted more than four years and killed millions of people. At the time it was known as the Great War, because there had never been a conflict like it in human history. Today, we also call it World War I.


In the years leading up to the outbreak of war, Europe had split into two rival camps. The division began in 1871, when Germany defeated France after a short war (the Franco-Prussian War) and seized two of its eastern provinces. From then on, the two countries were deadly enemies. In 1879 Germany formed an alliance with its southern neighbour, Austria-Hungary, while in 1894 France signed an alliance with Russia. Both sides feared attack by the other and built up huge armies and navies to defend themselves.

The rivalry between the two alliances was not just military. Both sides competed economically to sell their goods around the world, and both France and Germany built empires in Africa and the Pacific.

The only big country to keep out of these alliances was Britain. Britain was one of the world’s richest nations, had a vast overseas empire and was protected by the world’s largest and most powerful navy. Traditionally, it kept out of European alliances. By the early 20th century, however, Britain was under increasing threat from the growing economic, military, naval and imperial might of Germany. In 1904 Britain signed an entente (or understanding) with France to settle their many differences and to pledge to work together. In 1907 Britain made a similar agreement with Russia.

Between 1905 and 1913 a series of crises in Morocco in northern Africa and in the Balkans in southern Europe increased tension between the two alliances. By 1914, Europe was ready to explode.


The spark came on June 28, 1914. Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was visiting Sarajevo, the capital of the recently acquired province of Bosnia. There, a Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated him. The Austrian government blamed its small neighbour Serbia for the outrage, as Serbia had opposed the Austrian takeover of Bosnia in 1908 and wanted to control Bosnia itself. On July 28, Austria declared war on Serbia.


Serbia’s ally Russia mobilized its army to defend Serbia against Austria. Germany, Austria’s ally, warned Russia to stop, but when it refused, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1.

On the same day, Russia’s ally, France, mobilized its troops in support of Russia. Germany feared it would have to fight two powerful enemies either side of it: Russia to the east, France to the west. Germany therefore decided to knock out France before it had time to prepare fully for war and then turn to face Russia. On August 3, Germany declared war on France and marched its armies through neighbouring Belgium on their way to France.

Belgium, however, was a neutral nation whose independence was guaranteed by, among others, Britain. Britain demanded that Germany respect Belgian neutrality. When Germany refused, Britain declared war on Germany on August 4.


The war immediately spread far beyond Europe. Countries that were part of Britain’s vast empire, including India, Canada and Australia, were all involved. So were the French empire and Belgian and German colonies overseas.

In total, 32 nations fought in the war. Germany and Austria-Hungary were known as the Central Powers. They were joined by the Turkish Ottoman Empire in November 1914 and Bulgaria in 1915. The Allies were Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, Belgium and Japan. They were joined by, among others, Italy in 1915, Romania in 1916, Greece and the United States in 1917.


Fighting took place on two main fronts. The Western Front stretched from the English Channel south to the Swiss border. Here, British, French, Belgian, German and later American troops fought some of the bloodiest battles of the war. The Eastern Front ran between the Russian and the German and Austrian armies from the Baltic Sea down into south-eastern Europe.

Fighting also took place on the front between Italy and Austria, in the Balkans and the Middle East, in Africa, and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Battles took place on land, in the air and at sea.


On the Western Front the German army planned to sweep through Belgium and northern France and then turn back towards Paris, capturing the French capital and forcing France to surrender. However, it changed its plan at the last moment and headed straight for Paris. A combined French and British force stopped them east of Paris at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914.

Over the next three months, each army tried but failed to gain the advantage. By Christmas 1914, they faced each other along an 800-kilometre line that stretched through Belgium and France to Switzerland. Both sides started to dig trenches to defend themselves.


At first these trenches were simple ditches dug into the ground, but gradually they turned into massive feats of engineering. They had vast underground living quarters, medical facilities for the wounded, and supply trenches to bring up food and ammunition. Between the two sets of trenches stretched a no-man’s-land of muddy ground and barbed wire between 50 metres and 1.6 kilometres wide.

From the start of 1915 until the last few months of the war, the main fighting along the Western Front was fought from the trenches. Both sides tried to smash through the opponent’s trenches to break out into open ground behind. They exchanged gunfire, bombarded each other with artillery and sent out expeditions to find any weak spots.

Occasionally, one side would launch a major offensive to break the stalemate. During a major battle at Ypres in Belgium in April 1915, the Germans became the first army to use poison gas on a large scale. Other major battles were fought at Verdun in eastern France from February to December 1916 and on the River Somme in northern France from July to November 1916. Another battle fought at Ypres from July to November 1917 is known as Passendale.

Enormous numbers of soldiers were killed in these battles. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, around 60,000 British soldiers were killed or injured, two for every metre of the entire frontline at that point. There were more than 700,000 French and Germans casualties at Verdun.


On the Eastern Front vast armies moved back and forth across hundreds of kilometres and fought huge battles on open ground.

In the early months of the war, the Germans defeated the invading Russian army at the battles of Tannenberg (August 1914) and the Masurian Lakes (September 1914) in what is now Poland. A Russian advance into Austria in September 1914 was reversed the following year. By the end of 1915 the Russians had been pushed well back into their own territory.

In June 1916 the Russians made a surprise attack into Austria again, advancing hundreds of kilometres. This was their last success. The Russian army had lost more than a million men and the government of Tsar Nicolas II was weak and incompetent. In early 1917 revolution broke out in St Petersburg, the capital, and the tsar abdicated. A provisional (temporary) government took over, but it too was weak.

In November 1917 there was a second revolution. The Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin seized power and established the world’s first communist government. In March 1918 the new government made peace with Germany at Brest-Litovsk and retired from the war.


In May 1915 Italy joined the war on the Allied side in the hope of gaining Austrian territory. In June the two sides fought the first of 11 battles along the River Isonzo in north-eastern Italy. The final battle was in July 1917, but none of them was decisive. Then in October–December 1917, Austrian and German troops almost knocked Italy out of the war at the Battle of Caporetto. British and French troops rushed to support Italy, which finally defeated the Austrians at Vittorio Veneto in November 1918.


One of the most wasteful campaigns of the war took place on the Gallipoli Peninsula. This was at the mouth of the waterway leading from the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. The Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the German side, and prevented Britain and France sending supplies to their ally, Russia, across the Black Sea.

The Allies tried to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war by seizing Gallipoli and then advancing on the capital, Constantinople. Allied warships bombarded the area in February 1915 and troops landed in April. However, Ottoman forces stopped them leaving the beaches, and the entire force was withdrawn in January 1916, after many deaths.


The Allies also attacked the Ottoman Empire from the rear through Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Arabs in the Ottoman-held Arabia rose in revolt in 1916, helped by the British army officer T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). By the end of 1917 a British army had captured Jerusalem and, in October 1918, Damascus in Syria.


At the start of the war, Japanese, Australian and New Zealand troops seized German colonies in New Guinea and the Pacific, while French, British and South African soldiers seized colonies in south-west and west Africa. Most surrendered quickly, but a German army in what is now Tanzania fought on until after the war ended in 1918.


The world’s first powered flight took place in 1903, so aeroplanes were still very primitive when war broke out 11 years later. At first, they were used for reconnaissance—observing enemy lines from the sky. Soon aerial battles took place as flying aces, for example, the German Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron), fought for supremacy in the skies.

Aeroplanes and zeppelins (air balloons) were also used to drop bombs. The first German raid on Paris took place on August 30, 1914, and German planes regularly attacked British ports along its east coast.

At first, the Germans were supreme in the air, but by 1918 Allied air forces were unchallenged. The British Royal Flying Corps began the war with 4 squadrons and a total of 63 aeroplanes. In 1916 it was expanded to 106 front-line squadrons. The Royal Air Force was formed in April 1918. It was the world’s first separate military air service.


The naval rivalry between Britain and Germany was one of the main causes of the war, yet oddly their fleets barely met in war. A few German and British ships were attacked in the early months of the war and four German ships were sunk off the Falkland Islands (called Islas Malvinas by the people of Argentina) in the South Atlantic Ocean in December 1914. The only major sea battle occurred in the North Sea, off Jutland, in May 1916. Neither side won, but the British fleet had done enough to ensure the German fleet stayed in port for the rest of the war. As a result, the British navy was able to blockade Germany, and deprive it of much-needed supplies and food for its people.

The submarine war was far more important. German U-boats attacked Allied ships, including passenger liners such as the Lusitania, which they sank off Ireland in May 1915. The Germans aimed to stop food and other supplies reaching Britain from overseas. However, many American ships were also sunk, which turned public opinion in the United States towards Britain.

In February 1917 Germany announced that it would attack all ships, not just Allied, to starve Britain out of the war. Germany tried to divert American attention away from Europe by encouraging Mexico to invade the United States to regain land lost in the previous century. The plan backfired and in April 1917 the United States joined the war on the Allied side.


At the start of 1918, the war was finely balanced. Germany had knocked out Russia and could now direct all its efforts to a final, decisive attack against the Allies along the Western Front. However, thousands of new, fresh American troops were about to arrive in Europe, while Germany and its allies were weakened by the allied blockade. In addition, the Allies were stronger and had better technology. They used the tank for the first time in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

In March 1918 the Germans began a massive attack along the Western Front. They made huge gains until, in July 1918, they began to run out of supplies and their advance halted. The Allies quickly took the initiative. By now they had the perfected the technique of the rolling artillery barrage which destroyed all enemy trenches and armaments in front of it. This allowed soldiers to advance safely without being killed by the enemy or bombarded by their own side, as had often happened previously.

On August 8, 1918, 456 British tanks attacked near Amiens in France. Along the entire front, Allied troops pushed forward, breaking through in September into territory lost to Germany in the early days of the war.

Germany’s position was weakening daily. Its ally Bulgaria made peace in September, followed by Austria and the Ottoman Empire. The German government resigned, its fleet mutinied in Kiel and revolution broke out in Munich.


On November 11, Germany signed an armistice (truce) with the Allies. The war was over. Its cost in human lives was immense: more than 65 million people fought on both sides, 8.5 million died, 21.2 million were injured and 7.8 million were prisoners or missing in action. Many people survived the fighting but suffered terrible shellshock, a mental breakdown now called post-traumatic stress disorder. Many others lost limbs or suffered terrible burns to their face or body.

The Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires all collapsed, and new nations, such as Czechoslovakia and Poland, sprang up in their place. The peace treaty signed at Versailles outside Paris in 1919, plus further treaties signed in 1919 and 1920, redrew the map of Europe. Germany lost much territory, including its colonies, and had to make payments, called reparations, to its former enemies. Its allies also had to accept harsh peace terms.

For many people, this was “a war to end all wars”—never to happen again. In January 1918 US president Woodrow Wilson had announced a 14-point peace plan for the post-war world. He proposed an international organization—the League of Nations, a forerunner of today’s United Nations. The job of the League of Nations would be to make sure that in future disputes were settled by diplomacy, not war. He wanted to make the world “safe for democracy”, but both losers and victors felt cheated by the peace settlements, and old rivalries continued. A little over 20 years later, a second world war began.

Did you know?

Soldiers on all sides recorded their experiences of the war in letters, poems and stories. Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg wrote poetry about the war while serving with the British army in France. The French novelist Henri Barbusse wrote about life in the trenches. Erich Maria Remarque fought with the German army and later wrote a famous book called All Quiet On the Western Front that was made into a successful film.

Adolf Hitler, later dictator of Germany, won the Iron Cross medal while fighting on the Western Front. He learned that the war was over while he was recovering in hospital from being gassed. Hitler later said that the defeat of Germany was 'the greatest villainy of the 20th century' and blamed Jews and communists.

The assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in June 1914 almost did not happen. The first attempt to kill him failed when the bomb that a terrorist threw at his car bounced off. The Archduke changed his plans to go and visit those who had been injured in this attack. This gave the assassin Gavrilo Princip a sudden chance to shoot Francis Ferdinand and his wife.

Many of the fields in Flanders, in northern Europe, where soldiers fought and died were filled with poppies. This is the origin of the British tradition of wearing artificial poppies on Remembrance Sunday, when those who died in war are commemorated.

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