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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
World War I

(also known as the Great War, 1914–18)
The war which more than any other in European history has come to symbolize senseless slaughter. Its origins were so complex that no short answer is ever given as to why it was fought. But a central theme was the underlying tension between great imperial powers – some old and disintegrating, others new and growing in strength.

The empires in decline were *Turkey (whose plight had long been known as the *Eastern Question) and *Austria-Hungary. A widely recognized danger point was in the *Balkan territories lying between these ailing giants – Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, all of which had at some time been subject to one empire or the other. Nationalist movements had won freedom for some, but relationships remained uneasy. Meanwhile a third great empire to the north, *Russia, was eager to exploit any trouble in this region so as to acquire access to the Mediterranean.

The newest empire, *Germany, had recently established itself as the dominant power in continental Europe. But the event which had emphasized this status – Germany's invasion and defeat of France in the *Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1 – had also left *France, the second greatest continental power, with deep-seated grounds for hostility; after her defeat she had been forced to cede to Germany two border regions, *Alsace and *Lorraine, in which the population was of mixed French and German origin.
Outside Europe, particularly in Africa, German expansionism was now rivalling the other leading imperial power, *Britain. The British relied on their own traditional form of national security, that of controlling the seas. But this too seemed threatened in the early 20C by a rapid build-up of the German navy.

Increasing nervousness between the powers led to several crises in the early years of the century, including a succession of local wars in the Balkans. The final explosion was triggered by a single dramatic event. On 28 June 1914, in the Bosnian city of *Sarajevo, a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne. Austria used this as a pretext for strong demands on Serbia and, when they were not fully met, declared war. On 29 July Austrian artillery shelled Belgrade and within a week almost the whole of Europe was in arms.

In quick succession Russia ordered her army to mobilize against Austria; Germany declared war on Russia; France prepared for action, whereupon Germany declared war on her and sent an army of invasion through Belgium; Britain, committed by a treaty of 1839 to preserving Belgian neutrality, declared war on Germany. And it was still only August 4, not yet six weeks after the assassination at Sarajevo.

The German plan was for a quick thrust to Paris and to the Channel ports facing Britain, after which the victorious armies could be transferred to an eastern front against Russia. This scheme was frustrated by the resolution of the French, supported by a relatively small *British Expeditionary Force. Engagements in the autumn of 1914 at *Mons, the Marne and *Ypres resulted in the Germans being held at a line roughly along the French-Belgian border and along the French-German border down to Switzerland.

The only flat part of this territory was in Belgium, and it was there (in 'Flanders fields') that the rival armies settled in for nearly four years of devastating trench warfare. It is a measure of the static situation underlying successive campaigns that battles were fought again and again at the same places: the Marne (1914, 1918), the *Somme (1916, 1918) or *Ypres (every year except 1916). There were innovations – the Germans used gas on occasion (chlorine in 1915 and mustard gas in 1917, both at Ypres) and the British introduced *tanks (the Somme, 1916). Otherwise little changed except the spiralling casualty figures, until at last the Allies began to push the Germans back after the second Battle of the Marne in 1918.

There were two other major fronts in Europe. The Italians entered the fray in May 1915, declaring war on Austria in return for an Allied promise that Austrian territory south of the Alps would become Italian. The result was a prolonged localized war between Italy and Austria in this region. More important were Russia's assaults on Germany and Austria from the north and east. The only route by which the Allies could get supplies to Russia was through the Bosphorus and the Black Sea, and this was blocked from November 1914 when Turkey joined the war on the German side. The disastrous *Gallipoli campaign of 1915 was a British attempt to force Turkey out of the war, reopening the gateway to Russia.

The most important front outside Europe was in the Middle East, an area which had long been part of the Turkish empire and where the *Suez canal was of great strategic importance to the Allies. There were reverses here in the early years of the war, but by 1917–18 a two-pronged campaign was yielding results. *Allenby moved up the coast with conventional military forces, capturing Jerusalem, while further inland T.E. *Lawrence fostered an Arab revolt to pin down Turkish resistance. Early in October 1918 Allenby took Damascus and Beirut; soon he was close to the Turkish border and before the end of the month Turkey signed an armistice.

Meanwhile a deadly conflict had been carried on at sea throughout the entire four years. Both Britain and Germany entered the war with large fleets of heavily armed battle cruisers and battleships (of the *'dreadnought' type), but there was only one major engagement between these leviathans – at *Jutland. More significant was the threat to Britain from Germany's extremely successful submarines. The U-boats sank so many merchant ships that Britain was in serious danger of being starved of supplies, until the adoption in May 1917 of the convoy system with armed escort vessels.

But in another way the U-boats harmed Germany's chances; several ships were sunk with American passengers on board, the *Lusitania being the best known. Such provocation eroded the isolationist stance of the USA, as did an intercepted message from Zimmermann, the German foreign minister, promising Mexico the prize of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico in the event of war. In April 1917 the US Congress approved a declaration of war on Germany.

The arrival of US troops in large numbers on the western front in the summer of 1918 coincided with the Allies breaking through the *Siegfried line. For the first time the balance tipped decisively, for Allied troop levels would now steadily increase while those of Germany could only decline. As the front line crumbled, so did the political structure within Germany. Sparked by a mutiny in the fleet, revolt spread through the country in October 1918. On November 9 a socialist government took power and proclaimed a republic.

The German emperor William II (Kaiser Bill to the British) fled to the neutral Netherlands, where he lived until his death in 1941. Two days later, on November 11, the new government negotiated the *armistice. *Alsace and *Lorraine were to be returned to France; German troops were to withdraw from all occupied territories; military hardware and submarines were to be handed over and surface warships interned. The German fleet was moved to the security of *Scapa Flow, where the sailors on 21 June 1919 pulled off a remarkable feat of defiance. In spite of British precautions they managed to scuttle every one of their 50 warships, in protest against the terms imposed at Versailles.

The Versailles conference, convened in January 1919 to settle the details of the peace, had gone far beyond the reasonable demands of the armistice. The Germans had assumed that peace would be based on the conciliatory Fourteen Points of Woodrow Wilson, the US president. These were concerned with avoiding war, and their main purpose – the founding of the *League of Nations – was achieved. But to the distress of Woodrow Wilson, the Allies were more concerned with punishing Germany. The final treaty imposed crippling financial penalties, to be paid by Germany to the Allies as reparation for war damages. The resulting instability in Germany proved a fertile ground for the rise of the Nazis and did much to ensure a continuation of the conflict in *World War II.

The real damage, for which reparation from either side was impossible, had been in the lives of a generation. Deaths in the armed services alone amounted to some 8 million. The countries suffering the highest losses of military personnel were Germany (1.8m), Russia (1.7m), France (1.35m), Austria-Hungary (1m), Britain and the empire (0.9m). Civilian deaths worldwide are believed to have been in the region of 7 million.

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