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World War I: Overview


On 28 July Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. By 4 August Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers) were at war with Russia, France and Britain (the Allies). Generals in all countries were desperate to mobilize their troops; that is, to get them moving towards the frontier with the enemy. Rapid mobilization reduced the time available for discussion and negotiation to virtually nothing.


Stalemate in the West

Each side expected the war to be short-lived. The German plan was for a quick knock-out blow against France. This nearly worked. The German army swept through Belgium and northern France. The German advance was finally stopped by the French army on the River Marne, not far from Paris . The Germans were driven back little and a front-line was established. This front-line did not change very much for the following three years.


Attempts to break the stalemate led to enormous casualties. In 1916 the Germans tried to break through at the Battle of Verdun. They failed but in the fighting, that went on between February and July there were about a million casualties.


In the same year the British attacked on the River Somme. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 60,000 British troops were killed but the outcome was indecisive. In 1917 Britain once again tried to break through the German lines at a place called Passchendaele; there were half a million casualties. The result of this enormous suffering was that the British line moved forward only four miles.


Once the fighting had led to stalemate, the leaders had no idea how to end the war without losing face. Both sides looked for new allies to break the deadlock. Italy and Romania joined the Allied side and Bulgaria joined with the Central Powers. These new combatants did not end the war; quite the opposite. Each new player wanted some of the profits of war and was ready to fight until it got a 'fair share'.


The naval war and the Americans

There was no decisive victory in the war at sea. The only major naval battle took place in the North Sea in 1916 at the Battle of Jutland. Neither the British nor the German fleet was destroyed but afterwards the German fleet retired to port and did not venture out for the rest of the war.


Unable to destroy the British navy, Germany turned to submarine warfare. The German submarines were known as U-boats. They attacked British shipping in order to try to cut off vital supplies.


The U-boat campaign helped to bring America into the war on the side of Britain and France. By 1917 U-boats were trying to sink any ship that might be trading with Britain. This involved attacks on American ships. The American government responded by declaring war on Germany in April 1917. The power and wealth of the USA greatly strengthened the position of the Allies.


While the USA entered the war on the Western Front, Russia was being defeated in the east. The war had been going badly for the Russians for some time. Revolution in Russia in 1917 led to a collapse of the Russian war effort and withdrawal from the war.


Faced with total defeat, the new communist rulers of Russia agreed to all the German demands and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Under this peace treaty Germany dealt very harshly with Russia, taking control of huge areas of Russian territory.


German defeat and the armistice

Meanwhile, on the Western Front it took time for the American army to make a full contribution to the fighting. In March 1918 the Germans launched their last major offensive in the west. They tried to smash through to Paris before American reinforcements arrived in great force. After some successes the German attack petered out.


By August 1918 the American reinforcements were in place and the allied forces were ready for a huge counter-attack. With the help of tanks the Allies made a decisive breakthrough. The German generals decided that they were about to be defeated and the German government asked the American President Wilson for peace. There was an agreement to stop fighting on 11 November 1918. This agreement was called the Armistice.