World War I (1914–18)

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World War I (1914–18) CausesCauses of U.S. EntryMilitary and Diplomatic CourseDomestic CoursePostwar ImpactChanging Interpretations
World War I (1914–18): Causes Although the United States did not enter World War I until 1917, the outbreak of that war in 1914, and its underlying causes and consequences, deeply and immediately affected America's position both at home and abroad. In the debate on neutrality and later on peace aims, much was made of European secret diplomacy, which was rejected on the U.S. side of the Atlantic, of militarism and the escalating arms race before 1914, and of the impact of colonialism. Undoubtedly, all these factors contributed to the origins of the European catastrophe, but they do not explain why the war broke out when it did. This question can only be answered more precisely by looking at the political and military decision‐making processes in the last months, weeks, and days of peace in 1914.

After decades of debate about whether Europe “slithered over the brink” ( David Lloyd George's phrase) owing to general crisis mismanagement among all participant nations or because of the actions of a clearly identifiable group of people, the overwhelming majority consensus has emerged among historians that the primary responsibility rests in Berlin and Vienna, and secondarily perhaps on St. Petersburg. Judging from the documents, it has become clear that the German kaiser and his advisers encouraged Vienna to settle accounts with Serbia following the assassinations of the heir to the Austro‐Hungarian throne, Archduke Ferdinand, and his wife at Sarajevo in Bosnia‐Herzegovina on 28 June 1914.

By issuing a “blank check” to Austria‐Hungary on 5 July 1914, the German government took the first step in escalating a crisis that involved the risk of a world war among the great powers. This risk was high not only because these powers had been arming over the previous years, but also because they had regrouped into two large camps: the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria‐Hungary, Italy) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France, Russia). And when, after various diplomatic maneuvers, it became clear toward the end of July that such a world war might indeed be imminent, Berlin refused to deescalate although the decision makers there were in the best position to do so.

The Czarist government, as Serbia's protector, also had a role in this development; but it was primarily a reactive one after Vienna had delivered a stiff ultimatum in Belgrade and subsequently began to invade its smaller Balkan neighbor. So, while the main responsibility for the outbreak of war is therefore to be laid at the kaiser's door, the question of why he and his advisers pushed Europe over the brink continues to be a matter of debate. The German historian Fritz Fischer has argued that the kaiser's government saw the Sarajevo crisis as the opportunity for aggressively achieving a Griff nach der Weltmacht (Breakthrough to World Power Status), as the 1961 German version of Fischer's first, and highly controversial, book on the subject was entitled. The American historian Konrad Jarausch and others, by contrast, have asserted that Berlin's and Vienna's initial strategy was more limited. By supporting Austria‐Hungary against the Serbs, the two powers hoped to weaken Slav nationalism and Serb expansionism in the Balkans and thus to restabilize the increasingly precarious position of the ramshackle Austro‐Hungarian empire with its many restive nationalities. According to this interpretation, the assumption was that Russia and its ally, France, would not support Serbia, and that, after a quick localized victory by the central powers in the Balkans, any larger international repercussions could be contained through negotiation following the fait accompli.

It was only when this strategy failed owing to St. Petersburg's resistance that the German military got its way to launch an all‐out offensive, the first target of which would be Russia's ally, France. This was the sole military operations plan, the “Schlieffen Plan,” first developed by Gen. Alfred von Schlieffen, that the kaiser still had available in 1914. The alternative of an eastern attack on Russia had been dropped several years before. Worse, since the German Army was not strong enough to invade France directly through Alsace‐Lorraine, Helmut von Moltke, chief of the General Staff, had further reinforced the right flank of the invasion force with the aim of reaching Paris swiftly from the north. However, this could only be achieved by marching through Belgium, and it was this violation of Belgian neutrality that brought Britain into the conflict, definitely turning it into a world war.

In a further radicalization of his argument, Fischer asserted in his second book, War of Illusions (1973), that the German decision to start a world war had been made at a “War Council” on 8 December 1912, and that Berlin used the next eighteen months to prepare it. However, this view has not been generally accepted by the international community of scholars. Unless new documents supporting Fischer emerge, possibly from the Russian archives, the most plausible argument seems to be the one developed by Jarausch and others of a miscalculated “limited war” that grew out of control.

While diplomatic historians and political scientists have dominated the debate on the outbreak of World War I, social historians have more recently begun to examine the attitude of the “masses” in that summer of 1914. The older view has been that there was great enthusiasm all‐round and that millions in all participant countries flocked to the colors expecting to achieve victory no later than Christmas 1914. No doubt there was strong popular support, reinforced by initial serious misconceptions about the nature of modern industrialized warfare. But there have been recent challenges to this view, and it appears that divisions of contemporary opinion were deeper and more widespread than previously believed. French social historians have shown that news of the mobilization was received in some parts of the country with tears and consternation rather than joy and parades. In Germany, too, feeling was more polarized than had been assumed. Thus, there were peace demonstrations in major cities to warn Austria‐Hungary against starting a war with Serbia. And when the German mobilization was finally proclaimed, the reaction of large sections of the population was decidedly lukewarm. As one young trade unionist wrote after watching cheerful crowds around him near Hamburg's main railroad station on 1 August 1914: “Am I mad or is it the others?”

Considering the unprecedented slaughter that began shortly thereafter in the trenches of the western front as well as in the east, this was certainly a good question, and further research may well open up new perspectives on the mentalities of the men and women in 1914 and on the socioeconomic and political upheavals that followed, which ultimately also involved the United States as a participant.


Fritz Fischer , Germany: War Aims in the First World War, 1967.
Konrad Jarausch , The Enigmatic Chancellor, 1972.
Volker R. Berghahn , Germany and the Approach of War in 1914, 1973.
Fritz Fischer , War of Illusions, 1973.
James Joll , The Origins of the First World War, 1984.
John W. Langdon , July 1914, The Long Debate 1918–1990, 1991.
Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. , Austria‐Hungary and the Origins of the First World War, 1991.

Volker R. Berghahn

World War I (1914–18): Causes Of U.S. Entry Like the origins of World War I itself, the causes of U.S. entry on 6 April 1917 have been much debated. The 1930s emphasis on economic motivations—the desire of American munitions makers and financiers to protect their stake in Allied victory—has been superseded by two new interpretations. One, a broad view enunciated first by historians William Appleman Williams and N. Gordon Levin, emphasizes the desire of President Woodrow Wilson and many among America's economic and foreign policy elites to ensure a liberal, capitalist world order in contrast to reactionary militarism and colonialism or widespread revolution and communism. The other reflects a greater focus on Wilson's decision making and is put forward by Arthur S. Link, Ernest May, Robert H. Ferrell, and Thomas J. Knock. They emphasize variously the strategic situation of the United States as the leading neutral industrial and financial power; and the influence upon Wilson of the German submarine warfare, the predominantly pro‐British attitude of American elites, and the president's own appropriation of the leadership of the liberal movement toward a just and lasting peace based upon a league of nations.

In 1914, Wilson proclaimed U.S. neutrality in keeping with American tradition. He was also aware of the great divisions over the war: although perhaps a bare majority of Americans favored Britain, nearly as many were hostile to the Allies because of ethnic loyalties or suspicions of Britain, the world's most powerful empire and financial center, or hostility toward czarist Russia with its autocracy and pogroms.

Both Germany and Britain violated U.S. neutral maritime rights, as Wilson strictly defined them, but German submarine warfare seemed more ruthless, particularly with the sinking of the Lusitania, a British passenger liner, in 1915. American trade with the Allies tripled to $3 billion a year between 1914 and 1916 and helped economic recovery in the United States. Pro‐British elites and the urban press increasingly emphasized German immorality—the invasion of neutral Belgium and alleged atrocities there and later the barbarity of sub marine warfare. Seeking to avoid being drawn into the war but also insisting on Americans' right to aid the Allies, Wilson held Germany to “strict accountability” for its submarine warfare, and for a while caused Berlin to restrict its U‐boats.

After his reelection in 1916, Wilson offered to mediate a peace; but both sides refused. Berlin then decided on unrestricted submarine warfare, beginning 1 February 1917, to starve Britain into terms. Wilson severed diplomatic relations on 3 February. American public opinion was also inflamed by the Zimmermann note, in which Germany sought a military alliance with Mexico against the United States. When submarines sank three American merchant ships, Wilson abandoned temporary armed neutrality and decided to take the United States into the war, in part because his strict accountability policy had failed and in part because he wanted the United States to help shape a treaty for peace.

In his powerful war message of 2 April 1917, Wilson condemned the German submarine campaign as “warfare against mankind,” and urged Americans to fight, in his famous phrase, to make the world “safe for democracy.” By a vote of 82–6 in the Senate (4 April) and 373–50 in the House (6 April), Congress adopted a resolution declaring that a state of war existed between the United States and Germany.
[See also Germany, U.S. Military Involvement in.]


William Appleman Williams , The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, 1959.
Ernest R. May , The World War and American Isolation, 1914–1917, 1959.
Arthur S. Link , Wilson: Campaigns for Progressivism and Peace, 1916–1917, 1965.
N. Gordon Levin, Jr. , Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America's Response to War and Revolution, 1968.
Ross Gregory , The Origins of American Intervention in the First World War, 1971.
Robert H. Ferrell , Woodrow Wilson and World War I, 1917–1921, 1985.
Thomas J. Knock , To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order, 1992.

John Whiteclay Chambers II

World War I (1914–18): Military and Diplomatic Course “The situation is extraordinary. It is militarism run stark mad.” Col. Edward House, President Woodrow Wilson's closest adviser, did not exaggerate when he wrote these words. The Europe he described in the spring of 1914 was divided into two armed camps: the Triple Entente (Russia, France, and Great Britain) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria‐Hungary, and Italy). An unprecedented arms race was underway that coincided with revolutionary advances in the technology of warfare. Magazine‐loading rifles, belt‐fed machine guns, and improved artillery dramatically increased the firepower of armies. Relying on an expanding network of railways, the general staffs of the major European powers devised elaborate mobilization and offensive schemes. The smallest details were covered, including the preparation of exact railway timetables and even the registration of farmers' horses for possible use. Universal conscription fostered militarism. Governments identified and registered able‐bodied males of military age. Approximately 4 million men were in uniform when the war started in August 1914; that number had risen to a staggering 20 million by the end of the month.

Europe's military elite, accepting Carl von Clausewitz's military principles of “the decisive force, at the decisive place, at the decisive time,” were committed to an offensive strategy designed to climax in one or two great decisive battles. Clausewitz's ideas on war may also have influenced society. The historian John Keegan argues that Europe had been transformed into a warrior society by the acceptance of Clausewitz's maxims that war was a continuation of political activity and that “war is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds.”

A month after House's letter, the assassination on 28 June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro‐Hungarian throne, precipitated a general European crisis that quickly became unmanageable. The Austrians, given unequivocal support by their ally, Germany, blamed Serbia for the archduke's death and decided to crush Serbia's challenge to the fragile Austro‐Hungarian empire. Vienna's determination to go to war triggered a general conflict. The illusion that modern industrialized wars would be short made this decision easier. Few believed the Polish banker and economist, Ivan S. Bloch, the author of The Future of War in Its Economic and Political Relations: Is War Now Impossible? (1898), who argued that modern military technology had made unlimited war mutually destructive for the participants.

Germany's “Schlieffen Plan,” designed to achieve victory over France within six weeks by a gigantic flanking movement through neutral Belgium, came to grief during the First Battle of the Marne (5–9 September). An ominous portent was that the French, Germans, and British had suffered over half a million casualties in three weeks of fighting. Meanwhile, the Russian offensive in East Prussia was checked and thrown back, with an entire Russian army destroyed at Tannenberg (26–30 August).

Following the opening battles, the armies in the west dug in. An almost continuous line of parallel defensive systems was constructed from the North Sea to Switzerland. Protected by barbed wire, usually 50 or more feet deep, these earthworks were frequently built in depth. The front resembled a spiderweb, consisting of thousands of miles of connecting and parallel trenches. Trench warfare also existed to some extent of other fronts—in some areas of Russia, Italy, the Balkans, and Palestine—though nowhere did it become as prominent as in France and Flanders.

Europe's military leaders sought to return to a war of maneuver by rupturing the enemy's front. To restore the offensive, new weapons such as tanks and chemical warfare were eventually introduced. High‐explosive shells, recoilless carriages, optical sights, improved communications, and cannon ranges of 20 or more miles made indirect artillery bombardment the dominant force of the battlefield. The application of massive and increasingly sophisticated artillery fire proved to be the most effective means of reducing fortifications. But the western defenses, bolstered by dramatic advances in firepower, were so strong and thickly defended that it was possible to break into them but not through them prior to 1918. When breakthroughs were successful, there remained limitations to the advance. The 1916–18 version of the tank lacked the speed and reliability to maintain the momentum of an attack over battle‐torn ground before defenders dug in again. Nor could the heavy guns be moved forward rapidly to support a continued advance of the infantry.

The 1930s view, which lingers still among many, is that the generals of the western front were inept and their approaches to winning the war futile. “A war of attrition was substituted for a war of intelligence,” is the way that Lloyd George, British prime minister and a leading critic of attempts to win the war on the western front, put it. The historian Tim Travers has emphasized that many commanders had difficulty abandoning their nineteenth‐century vision of warfare, which emphasized the élan of the individual soldier over the new weapons technology. But recent studies of the evolution of tactics by Paddy Griffith and Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson have demonstrated that the western front during the last half of the war was not tactically stagnant. The Germans are often considered the most innovative with their elastic defense‐in‐depth and stormtrooper tactics of infiltration. But the British, with more offensive experience than the enemy in 1916–17, also perfected all‐arms assaults and advanced techniques of trench raiding prior to the tactical successes of the Germans in the spring of 1918.

Germany, relying on strong support from Austria‐Hungary, concentrated its resources on the eastern front in 1915. The vastness of that front, and the clear superiority of German artillery and leadership, made possible an advance of some 300 miles. Although Italy joined the Allies in 1915, by the end of the year, Berlin dominated Central and southeastern Europe, had a bridge to Asia and Africa through its Turkish ally, and retained Belgium and the most industrial part of France. Serbia had been defeated and Bulgaria enlisted as an ally. British efforts to find a “way around” the western front ended in dismal failure in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns. The central powers, with a more unified command because of Germany's dominant position, interior lines, and a good system of railways, held a formidable position despite their inferiority in warships, manpower, and industrial capacity.

In 1916, Germany sought to break the stalemate in the west in the ten‐month Battle of Verdun, deliberately seeking a decisive battle of attrition and will. To relieve Verdun, a massive Anglo‐French offensive was launched on the Somme in July. When winter brought the fighting to a close, the western front had little changed: Verdun remained in French hands, and the Allies had captured no position of strategical importance on the Somme. Combined German‐Allied casualties exceeded 2 million. Despite the carnage, the warring coalitions faced a bleak future of continued stalemate and exhaustion.

Compared to the great powers of Europe, the United States was a profoundly peaceful and unmilitaristic nation. Prior to America's entry into the war in April 1917, Wilson's secretary of the navy, Josephus Daniels, was decidedly antiwar if not pacifistic, and Newton Baker, secretary of war since 1916, was an ardent antimilitarist. The U.S. Navy had expanded to defend American shores and trade routes, but the U.S. Army ranked seventeenth in the world. The United States was the world's number one industrial power, but the army lacked modern weaponry, including tanks, poison gas, aircraft, heavy artillery, and trench mortars. War mobilization, 1917–18, failed to remedy this deficiency: the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) largely fought with foreign weapons.

Although legally neutral, the United States had become a vital factor for the Allies with their growing dependence on American credit and material. Caught between the effective Allied naval blockade and Germany's submarine warfare campaign, America's right to trade overseas was jeopardized. To keep the United States from being drawn into the global conflict, Wilson attempted mediation. With the European belligerents unable to take the U.S. military seriously, he had little diplomatic leverage except for American economic might. The European nations wanted a peace to reflect their immense sacrifices in blood and treasure. But an acceptable peace to one side represented defeat to the other.

Wilson's mediation efforts implied that he was prepared to accept a global role for the United States to obtain a compromise peace, but he certainly never imagined any circumstances that would involve American forces in what he referred to as the “mechanical game of slaughter” in France. Nor apparently could he identify any strategic interest for the United States in the total defeat of Germany, which he believed would result in an unbalanced peace of victors. His formula for a satisfactory end to the fighting as he announced in January 1917 was “peace without victory.”

Pressed into the war in April 1917 by Germany's gamble for quick victory through unrestricted submarine warfare, Wilson initially believed that American belligerency would largely be economic and psychological and that the central powers could be forced to the peace table without U.S. troops becoming involved on European battlefields. Pressure from London and Paris and the realization that his voice in any peace conference would be small without an American military presence in Europe changed his mind.

Only once before, during the American Revolution, had the United States fought as part of a military alliance. The General Staff in the War Department, however, quickly concluded that the only way that the United States could fight in Europe was through a collective military enterprise with the British and French on the western front. Nonetheless, America's leadership was determined to maintain a distinct military and political position. Wilson immediately disassociated himself from the entente's controversial war objectives by insisting that the United States was an “associate power,” with freedom to conduct independent goals.

The commander in chief of the AEF, John J. Pershing, proved an excellent choice to defend a separate and distinct U.S. military role in the war. The AEF commander tenaciously adhered to his goal of an independent U.S. force with its own front, supply lines, and strategic goals. His preparations for a win‐the‐war American breakthrough to occur in 1919 in Lorraine to the east and west of Metz profoundly influenced America's military participation. The United States supported unity of command and the selection of Gen. Ferdinand Foch as generalissimo; but Pershing resisted anything but the temporary amalgamation of American units into French and British divisions, even during the grave military crisis confronting the Allies in the spring of 1918. The German High Command, with Russia knocked out of the war in the winter of 1917–18, attempted to destroy the French Army and drive the British from the Continent through a series of offensives. Pershing resisted the only means of immediately assisting the depleted Allied forces: the inclusion of American units in British and French divisions. Small numbers of American soldiers, however, began to enter combat under the American flag in May and June. On 28 May, 14 months after the United States entered the war, a reinforced U.S. regiment (about 4,000 men) captured the village of Cantigny. Several days later, the Second Division (which included a Marine brigade) took up a defensive position west of Château‐Thierry and engaged the advancing Germans.

Pershing rebuffed efforts by Allied soldiers to share their increasingly sophisticated tactical techniques with his forces. Revisionists have been critical of his emphasis on riflemen, the American frontier spirit, and open field tactics, arguing that he did not comprehend how science and the machine age had revolutionized warfare.

After gaining reluctant approval from Foch for the formation of an independent American force, the U.S. First Army, Pershing went forward with plans to eliminate the threatening salient of St. Mihiel, as a prelude to his Metz offensive. The Battle of St. Mihiel (12–16 September 1918) proved to be an impressive but misleading U.S. victory because German forces were in the process of withdrawing to a new and shorter defensive line when the Americans attacked and cut off the salient.

The pressing demands of coalition warfare, however, forced Pershing to delay preparations for his 1919 Metz campaign. Complying with Foch's strategy, he reluctantly shifted most of his troops some sixty miles northward to the Meuse‐Argonne sector, where he was expected to participate in simultaneous and converging Allied attacks against the large German salient. Logistical chaos, flawed tactics, and inexperienced men and officers contributed to a disastrous start to the Meuse‐Argonne offensive (26 September–11 November 1918). Pershing hoped to advance ten miles on the first day; his front, however, had moved just thirty‐four miles by the armistice six weeks later, much of the ground gained only during the last phase of the offensive when Germany had exhausted its reserves.

Although only involved in heavy fighting for 110 days, the AEF made vital contributions to Germany's defeat. With tens of thousands of “doughboys” crossing the Atlantic to reinforce the Allies, and with the AEF emerging as a superior fighting force, the exhausted and depleted Germans had no hope of avoiding total defeat if the war continued into 1919.

Before Berlin's appeal in early October for a peace based on Wilson's Fourteen Points, the United States was on the verge of brilliantly coordinating its participation in the land war in Europe with its political plans to reshape the postwar world. If the war had continued into the spring of 1919, Pershing's plan to deliver a knockout blow to the German Army probably would have been achieved. Gen. Jan C. Smuts, the South African statesman who served in the British War Cabinet, warned the British government in October: if the war continued another year, the United States would become the “diplomatic dictator of the world.”

In contrast to Pershing's wishes for total victory, Wilson hoped to avoid placing Germany at the mercy of the Allies. American participation had not been designed to further the British empire, strengthen French security, or even maintain the European balance of power. Wilson stood not with the interests of the nation‐states, but with the rights of humankind. He thus attempted with mixed results to use separate negotiations with Berlin over an armistice to impose his Fourteen Points on the Allies as well as Germany.

As the Great War concluded with the armistice on 11 November 1918, American policy was directed toward the repudiation of power politics and the erection of a “permanent” peace. Wilsonianism promised an end to war primarily through democratic institutions, the end of secret diplomacy, the self‐determination for ethnic minorities, and most especially through a League of Nations. It has been argued that this visionary approach raised expectations that were impossible to meet. The war had destroyed the old balance of power in Europe, and the peace settlement made revisionist nations out of the two states that would soon dominate the Continent, Germany and the Soviet Union. The United States, the greatest economic beneficiary of the war, helped make the peace, but with its rejection of the Treaty of Versailles refused responsibility for maintaining it.

A war in which over 65 million troops had been mobilized by the belligerents ended in a twenty‐year truce instead of “permanent peace.” The failure to achieve Wilson's unrealistic though desirable goal was hardly surprising. But another general war was not inevitable. World War II was caused by many factors, including the flawed peace settlement of 1919, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the psychological scars of World War I, which enfeebled the democracies. But the inability of the victorious powers, especially Great Britain and the United States, to work together to prevent the resurgence of German military power, was certainly one of the most important reasons for the resumption of war in 1939.


B. H. Liddell Hart , The Real War 1914–1918, 1930.
Edward M. Coffman , The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I, 1968.
Donald Smythe , Pershing: General of the Armies, 1985.
Tim Travers , The Killing Ground: The British Army, the Western Front and the Emergence of Modern Warfare, 1900–1918, 1987.
Allan R. Millett , Over Where? The AEF and the American Strategy for Victory, 1917–1918, in Allan Millett and Williamson Murray, eds., Against All Enemies: Interpretations of the American Military from Colonial Times to the Present, 1988.
Timothy K. Nenninger , American Military Effectiveness in the First World War, in Military Effectiveness, Vol. 1: The First World War, Allan Millett and Williamson Murray, eds., 1988.
David Stevenson , The First World War and International Politics, 1988.
Robin Prior and and Trevor Wilson , Command on the Western Front: The Military Career of Sir Henry Rawlinson 1914–18, 1992.
John Keegan , A History of Warfare, 1993.
David F. Trask , The AEF and Coalition Warmaking, 1917–1918, 1993.
David R. Woodward , Trial by Friendship: Anglo‐American Relations, 1917–1918, 1993.
Paddy Griffith , Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army's Art of Attack, 1916–18, 1994.
D. Clayton James and and Anne Sharp Wells , America and the Great War, 1914–1920, 1998.

David R. Woodward

World War I (1914–18): Domestic Course With its dynamic economy, its large population, and its stable government, the United States was well suited to the kind of total conflict that was raging overseas in World War I. But to realize its potential as a belligerent, it had to overcome several obstacles. Unity was vital in a war that pitted whole nations against one another; yet in the months that followed the country's entry into the war in April 1917, the country remained divided. Faults ran through American society along lines of race, ethnicity, and economic class. The declaration of war had not eliminated isolationism apathy, pockets of pacifism and antimilitarism, and even sympathy in some quarters for the people America was fighting. Although American factories, farms, and mines had been producing materials for the Allies for many months, the task of converting the economy to war production promised to be complex and difficult. The method for raising and supporting an army of the size that would have to fight had barely been sketched out.

President Woodrow Wilson's administration improvised a series of solutions to these problems. It exhorted Americans to work and sacrifice for the war and to submerge their differences. It isolated and punished the war's opponents and rewarded people and organizations whose cooperation it needed. The result of its efforts was what has been called a wartime welfare state, in which government and interest groups sought to manage one another; in which patriotism and idealism and sacrifice existed alongside the determined pursuit of self‐interest; in which those with the greatest power, the strongest organization, or the most badly needed resources tended to secure the largest benefits from Congress and the Wilson administration.

To control domestic public opinion, the administration established a Committee on Public Information, which supplied American media with overwhelming quantities of facts and propaganda. Together with the Department of Justice and the Post Office, the Committee on Public Information defined what Americans were permitted to say in wartime. Notable dissenters, including the Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs and hundreds of others whom government officials felt had opposed government policies or interfered with war production, were sent to prison. The government's portrayal of a monstrous enemy and its attacks on dissenters, together with the reports of casualties suffered in battle at enemy hands, helped promote a frenzy of anti‐German and anti‐German American feelings in parts of the nation.

Appealing to liberals, at that time a very large faction, the administration made the war, in some respects, a continuation of the prewar Progressive movement. It depicted the struggle against the central powers as a campaign for worldwide reform. It endorsed a federal women's suffrage amendment as a reward for women's war work. It extended disability benefits to members of the armed forces, provided financial support to their dependents, and created occupational health and safety standards for war workers. It tried to limit alcohol consumption and abolish prostitution, goals of many reformers. To assure the cooperation of pro‐war labor unions, the administration approved collective bargaining for the duration of the conflict, provided federal mediation of labor disputes, and gave union officials an opportunity to sit on boards that managed the economy—but not to determine the policies of those boards. To the small and weak contingent of racial equality reformers, however, it offered only modest concessions, including positions in government as intelligence workers so that civil rights leaders could inform the government of possible disaffection among African Americans.

American corporations made large gains in wartime. The government enabled business groups to regulate themselves. Executives of leading companies dominated agencies, such as the Council of National Defense and the War Industries Board, that coordinated war production and distribution and arranged prices. It could hardly have been otherwise. Without a large, experienced regulatory bureaucracy of its own, the U.S. government needed not only the products of factories run by these businessmen but also their expert knowledge of how their industries operated. The president and Congress provided some checks on abuses by businesses. They declined for several months to give precise authority to the Council of National Defense and the War Industries Board; for a long time they failed to stop the War Department from resisting control over procurement by the business‐dominated agencies. Congress passed legislation that in principle outlawed conflicts of interest. In some cases, the administration even used federal agencies to run important segments of the war economy, such as the railroad system. Yet the bureaucracy that managed railroads for the Railroad Administration was recruited from executives who had managed the railroads before the government took them over, so even that organization—a supposed example of “war socialism”—continued the practice of self‐regulation.

The economic war agencies operated largely through a system of incentives, often using indirect methods rather than overt commands to achieve their objectives. They established a priority system in which companies that volunteered to manufacture war goods were given greater access to raw materials, workers, fuel, and transportation than those whose activities were deemed less essential. (To put it another way, companies that chose not to cooperate might receive barely enough of what they needed to keep them going). These agencies offered cooperating businesses the chance to earn very large profits, partly because prices for whole industries were set at a level that could make the most inefficient producers profitable. Because the people who awarded contracts and negotiated their terms came from the industries that received the awards, executives who sought those contracts could feel confident that they were dealing with knowledgeable persons, not insensitive government officials. Businesses could engage in collusion without fear of being prosecuted. Although producers in the lumber, steel, automobile, and other industries drove very hard bargains with the war agencies, and in some cases threatened to refuse contracts for vital war products, American capitalists used publicity about their war work to restore an image of private enterprise that had been seriously tarnished in the prewar years. Certain large business leaders also appreciated the wartime opportunity to substitute cooperation for competition—a change some of them hoped would be permanent.

Incentives and publicity played significant parts in other areas of war mobilization. To induce farmers to expand production, the federal government set a minimum price for wheat. It ran massive propaganda campaigns encouraging citizens to conserve food and fuel and to help pay for the war by purchasing government Liberty bonds. The Committee on Public Information and the Treasury Department staged Liberty bond rallies at which movie stars, war heroes, politicians, and other celebrities appeared to promote bond sales. Government publicity encouraged men of military age to join the armed forces and promoted a public climate in which able‐bodied “slackers” felt extremely uncomfortable. Though thousands held back out of conscientious objection or for other reasons, plenty of Americans wanted to enlist. Still, the government decided not to rely on volunteers alone. It instituted conscription, administered by a Selective Service System, which sent two and three‐quarter million men to the armed forces. The Selective Service System also promoted economic mobilization, inducing essential civilian workers to stay where they were by exempting them from the draft, but warning them that they must work or fight.

From women suffragists to civil rights leaders, from union officials to corporate executives, American civilians sought to turn the war to their advantage or to the advantage of the groups to which they belonged. Their political leaders and representatives did the same. After announcing that “politics is adjourned,” President Wilson asked the voters to elect candidates from the Democratic Party in 1918 as a referendum on his war leadership. (They responded by giving Republicans control of both houses of Congress.) Several of the state councils of defense, which had been established to foster mobilization, became political organizations, usually dominated by Republicans. Many wartime measures were intensely political—for example, the decisions to fix minimum prices for certain products and not others, and to pay part of the cost of the war by progressive taxation and by taxes on “excess” profits.

The wartime welfare state, created for temporary purposes and staffed largely by volunteers rather than by a standing bureaucracy, dissolved at the end of the war. But the memory of the wartime system remained in the minds of those who had run it, and some of its components persisted in the 1920s—such as a federal system of medical benefits to veterans and government‐sponsored cooperation among businesses. During the Great Depression, several wartime agencies were resurrected with new names and altered purposes, including the War Finance Corporation, restored in Herbert C. Hoover's administration as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and a host of New Deal organizations such as the National Recovery Administration, which traced its origins to the War Industries Board. Short‐lived though it may have been, the wartime system for managing America's home front in 1917 and 1918 contained some of the germs of the late twentieth‐century welfare state, and was a progenitor of modern big government.
[See also Agriculture and War; Civil Liberties and War; Economy and War; Industry and War; Public Financing and Budgeting for War.]


David M. Kennedy , Over Here: The First World War and American Society, 1980.
Robert H. Ferrell , Woodrow Wilson and World War I: 1917–1921, 1985.
David R. Woodward and and Robert Franklin Maddox , America and World War I: A Selected Annotated Bibliography of English‐Language Sources, 1985.
John Whiteclay Chambers II , To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America, 1987.
Ronald Schaffer , America and the Great War: The Rise of the War Welfare State, 1991.

Ronald Schaffer

World War I (1914–18): Postwar Impact World War I marked a turning point in world history. It reduced the global influence of Europe, destroying some of its monarchies and empires and diminishing the strength of others. It enabled new nations to emerge. Shifting economic resources and cultural influences away from Europe, the war encouraged nations in other areas of the world, notably the United States, to challenge Europe's international leadership.

Essentially a civil war in Europe with global implications, World War I destroyed some empires and weakened others. The 1917 Revolution in Russia, following the czarist regime's collapse, culminated in the Bolshevik seizure of power. With military defeat in 1918, the Otto man and Austro‐Hungarian Empires disintegrated, while Germany replaced the kaiser's government with the Weimar Republic. New nations such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia emerged from former empires. Victory for the European Allies came at a high price. They owed over $11 billion to the United States, which was transformed from a net debtor to a net creditor. New York replaced London as the world's financial center. The European Allies also faced increasing demands for self‐rule from their colonies. They no longer controlled sufficient military and economic resources to shape world affairs as before.

By war's end, the United States and Japan were among the victorious powers at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, along with the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, with U.S. president Woodrow Wilson playing a leading role. He made the League of Nations an essential part of the Treaty of Versailles with Germany. The United States and the Allies, refusing to recognize the Bolshevik government in Russia, excluded the Soviet Union from Paris. Still, the specter of Bolshevism loomed over the conference.

Wilson sought a peace settlement that would protect democratic and capitalist nations. Affirming the principle of national self‐determination, he called for a postwar League of Nations to provide collective security for its members. He expected the League, under American leadership, to protect its members' territorial integrity and political independence against external aggression, and thereby preserve the peace.

Within the belligerent countries, the war had enhanced the state's role in the economy and society, but it also generated a backlash. Democratic governments in Western Europe retained civilian control, while autocratic governments in Central and Eastern Europe had succumbed to both military rule and revolution. Western democratic governments lost authority after the war. British elections in 1918 that kept Prime Minister David Lloyd George in office also registered Irish demands for self‐rule. France experienced political instability after Premier Georges Clemenceau's resignation following his defeat in the presidential election.

Americans likewise reacted against Wilson's strong wartime leadership. The 1918 elections reduced the Democrats to the minority in Congress. After the war, as wartime agencies removed regulations, the United States experienced rapid inflation, labor strikes, and economic recession. The American Expeditionary Forces returned from France and quickly demobilized. Congress reorganized the armed forces with the National Defense Act of 1920, reducing the regular army to nearly its prewar level.

Rapid readjustment and demobilization produced social unrest in the United States in 1919–20. Regardless of their wartime patriotism, African Americans were primary victims of urban race riots and rural lynchings, while socialists and other radicals, whether immigrants or native‐born, were targets of the Red Scare. Wilson was partly responsible for this postwar impact, given his negative attitudes toward black people, new immigrants, and labor strikes, and his international focus, resulting in a neglect of postwar reconstruction at home. He contributed to the Red Scare, too, by advocating the League of Nations as a barrier against Bolshevism. Nevertheless, under Henry Cabot Lodge's leadership, the Republican Senate kept the United States out of Wilson's League by rejecting the Treaty of Versailles.

Americans reacted against the wartime regulatory state and international involvement. Voters in 1920, including women who had just gained the suffrage under the Nineteenth Amendment, elected Republican senator Warren G. Harding to the presidency. Promising less government at home and less entanglement abroad, he epitomized one postwar alternative to Wilsonianism.

The postwar legacy of World War I was very different from Wilson's hopes. The League of Nations failed to maintain peace when aggressive nations—notably Communist Russia, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan—later challenged the Versailles peace. These revisionist powers rejected democracy and capitalism and challenged the status quo. They exploited the Anglo‐American revisionism of the treaty's critics, such as John Maynard Keynes in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920), to justify their aggression. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, which resulted in part from the postwar failure to create a sustainable world economy, they turned modern nationalism into a hostile force that culminated in World War II.

Yet the long‐term impact of World War I also included the enduring legacy of Wilsonianism. Wilson had emphasized the principle of national self‐determination in the peacemaking. To curb nationalist excesses and aggression, he had advocated collective security through the League of Nations, hoping to enable free nations to participate in a new world order of peace and prosperity. He had endeavored to shape public opinion in favor of democracy and capitalism as well as internationalism. Despite his failure after World War I, Wilson's ideals deeply influenced the statecraft of future generations. Wilsonianism would continue to shape the international history of the twentieth century.


Burl Noggle , Into the Twenties: The United States from Armistice to Normalcy, 1974.
Barry D. Karl , The Uneasy State: The United States from 1915 to 1945, 1983.
Robert H. Ferrell , Woodrow Wilson and World War I, 1917–1921, 1985.
Klaus Schwabe , Woodrow Wilson, Revolutionary Germany, and Peacemaking, 1918–1919: Missionary Diplomacy and the Realities of Power, 1985.
Arthur Walworth , Wilson and His Peacemakers: American Diplomacy at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, 1986.
Lloyd E. Ambrosius , Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition: The Treaty Fight in Perspective, 1987.
Manfred F. Boemeke, Gerald D. Feldman, and Elisabeth Glaser‐Schmidt, eds., The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years, 1998.

Lloyd E. Ambrosius

World War I (1914–18): Changing Interpretations Historical opinion about the causes of World War I, American entry, and the making of peace has changed sharply over the years, with the publication of documentary collections, the opening of archives, and the appearance of memoirs and collections of personal papers, as well as changing theories and international circumstances. There is now general agreement on the causes of the war and of American entry; but disagreement remains over the American role in the peace.

During the years between the two world wars, contentions abounded between the adherents of Sidney B. Fay of Harvard University and Bernadotte Schmitt of the University of Chicago, who took respectively the sides of the central powers and the Allies, and based their books and articles on the national documentary collections and memoirs. At the end of World War II, the American and British governments took control of the German Foreign Office files and opened them, which revealed the bias of the earlier German documentary collection, Die Grosse Politik der Europaeischen Kabinette: 1871–1914. Opinion now is that German nationalism bears primary responsibility for starting the war.

American entrance into the great European conflict, which made it a true world war, produced an argument in the 1930s between Charles Seymour of Yale University and the popular historian Charles A. Beard, in which Seymour singled out German submarine warfare, especially the resort to unrestricted use of submarines beginning 1 February 1917, contrary to historical American neutral rights, as the cause of President Woodrow Wilson's decision to move from neutrality to intervention. Beard belittled such a monocausal contention, writing that the cause of any large event is necessarily complex, akin to a chemist pouring reagents into a test tube and obtaining a precipitate—but the latter is not the cause. Historical opinion now favors multicausality within a larger cultural and economic context provided by U.S. ties with the Allies.

In the making of the peace it is possible to say that the Wilsonian internationalists, the champions of the American president, such as historians Arthur Link and Arthur Walworth, have held the field. But questions remain, notably about whether the American people were prepared in 1919 for, if not a world government, then a world organization. Historians have agreed that Wilson himself was not his own best advocate. Thomas J. Knock has argued that Wilson undermined the progressive internationalist coalition by wartime repression. There is particular concern about the Wilson design of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which was neither fish nor fowl—neither a general scheme to promote international law and arbitration, which was in the American diplomatic tradition, nor a design for a postwar alliance of the victorious powers, which such conservative senators as Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts might have approved on a short‐term basis. Historians have remarked on the extraordinary nationalism of post‐1918 America, the inchoate but ardent desire to promote peace, and the victory of isolationism. They are unsure that any American president, seeking an acceptable peace, could have done anything other than what President Warren G. Harding did, which was to declare agreement with the nonpolitical provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.
[See also Disciplinary Views of War.]

Robert H. Ferrell

World War I

views updated Jun 08 2018



The conflict that broke out in late July–early August 1914 was immediately referred to as the "European War." European it remained, for at root it was a struggle for supremacy on the Continent, and Europeans were the bulk of its victims. It was soon also called a "World War," with equally good reason. Because the globe was dominated by Europe at the start of the twentieth century, the conflict touched most of it, with some parts, such as the Middle East, affected profoundly. Indeed, though difficult to foresee in 1914, the war marked the beginning of the end of European hegemony, with the United States entering the conflict in 1917 and presiding over its settlement while Japan confirmed its power in east Asia and the Pacific. The war was also called the "Great War" because it seemed likely to change the world more dramatically than any event since the French Revolution.


Although one set of events, the war is best understood as four distinct conflicts that converged in 1914. The first arose from the realignment of the European balance of power following the creation of a powerful Germany in 1870. Otto von Bismarck sought to avoid polarizing the Continent against Germany by keeping France isolated and maintaining Russia and Austria-Hungary as joint allies, despite the potential for rivalry between them. This balancing act was disregarded by the new emperor, William II, and his successive chancellors following Bismarck's dismissal in 1890. Germany's increasingly close alliance with Austria-Hungary pushed autocratic Russia into an alliance with republican France, threatening Germany on each flank. This in turn fed deep insecurities among the German political and military elites about how to safeguard the future of both the nation and the semiauthoritarian monarchy that governed it.

The second conflict arose from the colonial empires accumulated by the European powers before 1914. Not unreasonably, William II felt that Germany's strength and dynamism in Europe entitled it to overseas possessions. But the way he pursued this goal challenged British maritime supremacy, provoking a naval arms race between the two countries. He also created international crises in 1905 and 1911 by intervening in Morocco, where the French were establishing a protectorate. The result was counterproductive. Britain kept its naval lead, and by 1912 Germany refocused on the European continent. However, Britain had been forced to replace imperial isolation by alignment with France (1904) and Russia (1907), in what became known as the Triple Entente during the war. This allowed the concentration of its fleet in home waters against the German threat while also making it unlikely that Britain would stand aside from a challenge to France. Colonial conflicts thus contributed to the nature of the war in 1914, if not to its outbreak, for they encouraged Britain and France to collaborate in Europe and to attack Germany's colonies if war broke out.

A third kind of conflict arose from the attempt by two multinational states, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary, to preserve their position amid emergent national identities. The two empires drew on the older principle of dynastic authority over peoples who belonged to various ethnic, religious, and national groupings. By 1914 former subjects had all but forced the Ottoman Empire out of its extensive territories in southeastern Europe. In retrospect, the two Balkan wars in 1912–1913 were the early warning signal of a European conflict. The key successor states (Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia) reduced Ottoman power to a toehold in Europe before engaging in a second, fratricidal conflict over the spoils. This had the effect of reorienting Turkey, where radicals had come to power in 1907, toward an Asian version of the Ottoman Empire infused with a new Turkish nationalism.

In the case of Austria-Hungary, concessions to the subordinate nationalities (Czechs and Poles as well as the South Slav peoples of Slovenia and Croatia) ultimately threatened the supremacy of German-speaking Austrians and Hungarian Magyars on which the Dual Monarchy rested. In 1908 Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, a principality with a mixed Bosnian, Serb, and Muslim population that it had occupied after an Ottoman defeat thirty years earlier. It did so in order to prevent Bosnia-Herzegovina from falling into the hands of Serbia, whose growing power exerted an attraction on South Slavs within the Dual Monarchy. The sword was double-edged, however, as acquiring Bosnia enlarged the potential for just such a challenge. On 28 June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a student who belonged to a Bosnian Serb terrorist group with shadowy connections to Serb military intelligence, assassinated the heir to Austria-Hungary, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and his wife, as the couple visited the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. This was the fuse that detonated the Great War a month later.

The fourth kind of conflict was the reverse of this rearguard defense of dynastic power. The Serbs saw themselves as fighting for national liberation, the model for which had emerged with the French Revolution when popular sovereignty became a basis of nationhood. Others agreed, seeing Serbia as the Piedmont of a South Slav nation-state, in a reference to the mid-nineteenth-century unification of Italy around the independent monarchy of that name. More broadly, the legitimacy accorded to nation-states made the defense of the nation, once established, the strongest justification for war. In 1914, invasion—imagined or real—inspired national unity in nearly every belligerent power.

However, war in 1914 took most Europeans by surprise because previous crises had been defused. The question of who was responsible became a major issue of the conflict. The Allies firmly blamed Germany by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, but interwar German governments rejected this burden of guilt. They argued, along with international pacifist opinion, that two armed blocs had accidentally collided in 1914, each fearful lest its opponent seize the advantage. This interpretation remained influential during the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, when the cost of a diplomatic breakdown was even greater. Yet in a West Germany grappling with its Nazi past, attention refocused on the earlier expansionism of Kaiser William II's Germany. While there is no firm consensus, the central role of the German government and army now seems inescapable and the idea of an accident untenable. For once Germany had tied its status as a great power to Austria-Hungary, it was in some measure tributary to the Dual Monarchy's struggle for dynastic survival. By urging Austria-Hungary to crush Serbia after the assassination of Francis Ferdinand, William II and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg deliberately provoked Russia, since the outcome would have been a powerful Austro-German bloc dominating southeastern Europe. This transformed the conflict into one about the balance of power, activating the Franco-Russian alliance. Initially Russia, France, and Britain tried classic diplomacy to resolve Austro-Serb differences, but German policy condemned this to failure. Some German leaders urged a general war; others hoped that Europe might accept a diplomatic coup against Serbia. But all were ready to gamble, partly through confidence in German military strength and partly from exaggerated fear that Russia might prove unbeatable in a future war for the survival of the fittest. With the colonial issue settled, German leaders miscalculated that Britain would stand aloof, whereas the Entente with France helped Britain assert its traditional hostility to Continental domination by one power.


The outbreak of war transferred control to the generals. By themselves, invasion plans are no proof of an aggressive intent. The job of generals in peace is to prepare for war, and before 1914 the doctrine that a conflict (whatever its origin) could best be won by the offensive was widespread. The war began with invasions by all the main Continental powers. However, since Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers) held the initiative, German strategy drove events.

Conceived by a prewar chief of the General Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen, the German plan dealt with a two-front war by launching the main assault against France before turning with its Austrian ally against Russia, which it was assumed would mobilize more slowly. The military key to transforming Germany's position in the east thus lay in the west. However, Schlieffen chose to use the coastal plains of Holland and Belgium, both neutral states, to deploy his invasion. Although modifications by his successor, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger (commander when war broke out), restricted this to Belgium, it turned the war for the Entente (and especially Britain) into a crusade for international law and the integrity of small nations. Had Germany won at the outset, this would not have mattered. But two further factors weighed on the Schlieffen Plan: the strength of the armies and the gap between the imagined war and battlefield reality.

The major Continental powers before 1914 based their armies on short-term conscription that created cadres of trained men who remained in reserve until middle age and who could be mobilized in time of war. The armies that took to the field in 1914 thus numbered millions. Exceptionally, the British, whose security depended on the navy, had a small, professional army mainly used for colonial campaigns, so that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that was dispatched to France consisted of only some 100,000 men. Realizing that Continental warfare meant a Continental-style army, the minister of war, Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, embarked on a recruitment drive which by 1916 had delivered a mass volunteer army to the western front. This was insufficient and Britain introduced conscription in 1916, though this was never applied to Ireland or to the dominions of British settlement (Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa), apart from Canada. France, demographically the weakest Great Power, had introduced universal military service in 1905 and extended the period from two to three years in 1913 in order to match Germany's larger population. Russia, with its vast numbers, had no need of full conscription. Germany, which had pioneered short-term military service as the "school of the nation," did not call up all adult men for fear of contaminating the army with politically undesirable working-class elements. This placed the Schlieffen Plan under strain, since modifications that sent more units to hold the Russians at bay meant that the force in the west was inadequate to envelop the French in a battle of "annihilation."

Again, this might not have mattered had the offensive held the advantage. Despite the fact that French and German forces in the west were numerically matched, the German army was supremely confident of its organizational and fighting qualities. The high commands of all the powers understood that technical developments—high-explosive artillery shells, the machine gun—had "industrialized" firepower, making it far more lethal. But although high casualties were anticipated, the antidote was held to lie in the qualities of military commanders who would motivate their soldiers to maintain the offensive and deliver victory. The imagined battlefield drew on the decisive encounters of the Napoleonic Wars a century earlier, which the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 and subsequent colonial campaigns had reinforced.

Hence, when von Moltke launched a million men against Belgium in August 1914, expectations were high. By early September the Germans reached the river Marne, thirty kilometers from Paris, virtually on schedule. But the cost was punishing. Losses were unprecedented, with over 300,000 casualties on each side by the end of the month. The German armies had ranged far ahead of their support. Tired and harassed by resistance from the retreating foe, the soldiers had given way to a mass delusion that they faced concerted guerrilla resistance by Belgian and French civilians. The charge had no foundation, being rooted in the German military's fear of democracy. But the result was a brutal reign of terror in the invasion zone resulting in widespread arson and the deliberate killing of 6,500 civilians, which prompted international condemnation of "German atrocities." Above all, the French and British conducted an elusive retreat as the invaders fanned out over an ever-widening arc of territory. Unable to envelop Paris, the Germans tried to close ranks east of the capital. This left them open to a flanking attack from the city in conjunction with a massive counterattack ordered by the French commander, Joseph Joffre. The Battle of the Marne reversed the course of the war as the Germans retreated northward. Then, reaching high ground along the river Aisne, they dug trenches, and the Allies halted in the face of insuperable defensive firepower. Each side raced to outflank the enemy until by November a line of trenches stretched from Switzerland to southwestern Belgium. It was barely to move in four years.

War in the east remained more fluid. Distances were vast and the more primitive transport infrastructure was less decisive in supplying the defensive. After a Russian invasion of remote eastern Germany in August 1914, two German armies under the joint command of the venerable Paul von Hindenburg and the energetic Erich Ludendorff defeated the threat, though the Russians successfully took a large swath of Austrian Galicia. But even here, static trench warfare set in for long periods between dramatic shifts in the front. Elsewhere, trench warfare held sway. Ottoman Turkey entered the war in November 1914 on the side of the Central Powers. In addition to facing Russia in the Caucasus Mountains, the Turks confronted a Franco-British landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula in European Turkey in April 1915, which aimed to seize Istanbul and open a warm-water link with Russia. The operation was a failure, as trench warfare halted any advance and forced an eventual evacuation. When Italy joined the Entente in May 1915 in order to wrest the remaining Italian-speaking areas from Austria, it committed itself to fighting along its northeastern frontier, and despite the mainly alpine terrain, trench warfare predominated there too. Only on the margins, in Germany's African territories and the Ottoman provinces of Palestine and Mesopotamia, did fighting remain mobile. The fact that it took the Austro-Hungarian armies three attempts to crush Serbia (which was not occupied until the end of 1915) proves the tenacity of defensive warfare in Europe.

Trench warfare was thus a structural constant of fighting during World War I. What it really expressed was the destructive capacity of the industrialized firepower that had caused such devastating losses in the opening period and against which trenches were a defense. The result was an extended form of siege combat that overturned the military preconceptions of generals and soldiers alike. The men of all armies soon got used to digging in for survival. A routine developed of manning these modern earthworks, which were supplied by railroads with all the accoutrements of industrial society (from tinned foods to medical facilities, which meant for the first time that fewer soldiers died of disease than of combat) and which were supported by a semi-urban rear filled with munitions dumps, rest camps, temporary cinemas, and football grounds. All this amounted to a defensive system of extraordinary strength and density, especially on the western front. How to restore the advantage to the offensive, break the enemy's lines, and win a decisive victory was the central military conundrum of the entire war.

Several options presented themselves to both camps. One was economic. Because the stalemate absorbed vast quantities of munitions and materials as well as men, it drew on the entire resources of the societies involved. Here maritime supremacy gave the British, and thus the Entente, an advantage, since they drew on international supplies of food and raw materials and on U.S. munitions production. The Central Powers used submarines to try and neutralize this advantage, though to be effective this meant targeting neutral shipping and risked bringing the United States into the war. Germany also exploited the economies and populations of its substantial occupied territories—Belgium, northern France, Russia's Polish and Baltic provinces, and, from December 1916, Romania. But the Entente powers held the advantage in terms of economic resources and manpower.

A second option was to find a strategic alternative to the trench deadlock. The British had just this in mind when they devised the Gallipoli operation in 1915, which was followed by an equally unsuccessful Franco-British front against Bulgaria (a junior member of the Central Powers), which stagnated in the hills of Macedonia until the end of the war. Difficult logistics and the dominant defensive nullified these efforts to force the enemy's back door. In fact, most British generals (including Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the BEF from December 1915) and virtually all French commanders and politicians believed there was no alternative to expelling the Germans by victory on the western front. The real issue was how to coordinate the western, eastern, and Italian fronts in successful coalition warfare. The Central Powers faced this imperative in reverse. Compelled to fight on several fronts, they could use shorter internal supply lines to concentrate their offensive capacity while defending elsewhere. But defeat on any front would threaten Germany as the dominant power. The "easterners" in the German Supreme Command wanted to eliminate Russia so as to boost the manpower available in the west. But final success still depended on a successful offensive there.

A third option, therefore, was to devise new weapons and associated tactics to achieve this. From the first-ever use of chemical weapons (asphyxiating gas, released by the Germans on the Belgian front in April 1915 and rapidly copied by the Allies), each side sought to restore mobility to firepower. By the end of the war, aircraft had moved from reconnaissance to tactical support for ground troops and to strategic bombing, while the British and French both developed the tank, first used by the British on the Somme in September 1916. Strangely, the Germans neglected this weapon. But if the shape of future warfare was apparent by 1918, it was insufficient to turn the tide. Heavy artillery remained the principal assault weapon. Despite more sophisticated battlefield tactics, which curbed the casualty rates of 1914–1915, the defensive deadlock had not been completely prized open by the end of the war.

By default, this left a fourth option: attrition. Time and again, offensives designed to restore the war of movement ended up being measured solely in terms of the losses sustained by the enemy. The pattern was manifested in 1915 by the French, as they sought vainly to break the western front by assaults in the Artois and Champagne regions while the Germans, who were concentrating on driving the Russians back from Austrian Galicia, remained on the defensive. With the second-highest annual French losses of the war (after 1914), Joffre could claim little more than that he had "weakened" the enemy. For some commanders attrition was a strategy, for others a justification when "breakthrough" failed. Yet its cumulative effect on manpower, matérial, and morale was real. Ultimately it favored the Entente, which was better endowed in the first two categories than the Central Powers. Having failed in 1914, the German leadership was under intense pressure to find a new winning strategy before attrition told against it.

The outcome of the war was shaped by all these options plus one other: the diplomatic search for a negotiated peace as the alternative to a struggle that might destroy the very fabric of the societies involved. In response to the lessons of 1915, the Entente powers began to coordinate their plans, which for 1916 turned on a major Franco-British offensive. The German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, preempted this in February 1916 by unleashing a massive onslaught on the fortified (but weakly held) town of Verdun. Unlike Ludendorff and Hindenburg, he believed the outcome should be sought directly on the western front. Realizing that the long-term odds were against Germany, he planned a battle on the basis of attrition, seeking the destruction of the French will to fight and the division of the western Allies. The bid failed. By summer 1916, when the worst of the fighting was over, the French still held Verdun. Moreover, on 1 July a scaled-down version of the Franco-British offensive was launched on the river Somme, with the British taking the lead. Like the French in 1915, the largely untried British troops were devastated by the unbroken power of the German defensive, with sixty thousand casualties (including almost twenty thousand dead) on the first day being the highest in British history. Though some later phases of the battle were more successful, by November, Haig's hope of a breakthrough had evaporated. Yet overall, 1916 demonstrated both the resilience of the French and Britain's ability to deploy a mass army on the western front. Together with an initially successful Russian offensive under Alexei Brusilov against the Austrians, this provoked a crisis in the German leadership that resulted in Hindenburg and Ludendorff taking over the Supreme Command for the rest of the war and dominating domestic politics.

In the short term, the reversion to an eastern strategy worked. The German army went onto the defensive in the west, retreating in February 1917 to the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line, which made the western front even more impregnable. In April the new French commander, Robert Nivelle, who had replaced Joffre when Parliament forced the government to reassert control over the military, promised a decisive breakthrough as he attacked the Chemin des Dames on the river Aisne. Appalling weather and unbroken defenses reduced the battle yet again to a costly struggle of attrition, this time producing widespread disaffection among French soldiers at the gulf between tactics and reality. The crisis in morale was only resolved when Nivelle's successor, Philippe Pétain, renegotiated the terms of service with soldiers who were acutely aware of their status as citizens, the upshot being better conditions and less costly tactics. The BEF, pursuing its own path in the second half of 1917, attempted a frontal assault in Belgium (the Third Battle of Ypres), which Haig ambitiously designed to penetrate the front and link up with a coastal invasion to turn the German flank. This too degenerated into stalemate on the flooded plain of Flanders with high losses on both sides.

On the eastern front, the ultimate failure of Brusilov in 1916 and the internal rigidities of the regime brought down the tsar in the revolution of March 1917. The Provisional Government (composed of liberals and moderate socialists) imagined that it could now unleash the energies of the country in a war effort that would also see the introduction of a western-style democratic constitution. But popular disaffection, growing mutinies in the army, and outright opposition to the war by industrial workers undercut this effort, which was in any case incapable of defeating German military power in the east. A final, disastrous offensive in June precipitated a second revolutionary crisis, which brought Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power in November, covertly backed by the Germans, on a platform of withdrawal from the war and full-blown socialism. This was confirmed by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, by which the Bolsheviks ceded much of Ukraine to the German military who now controlled nearly as much of eastern Europe as Hitler would in 1942. In addition, the Germans stiffened the Austrian effort in Italy and caused a disastrous defeat at Caporetto in October 1917, with the Central Powers occupying much of the Veneto before the front was reestablished east of Venice.

Why, given these strategic successes in 1917, were Germany and its allies defeated within a year? War aims—the political core of the conflict—were crucial. In 1914 the German elites wished to preempt Russian expansion and shore up Austria-Hungary, but they had no blueprint for Continental dominance. Yet military success turned these aims into a potential hegemony that was soon fleshed out in economic and political projects. Germany was the mold-breaker, whereas the Entente powers were fighting for the restoration of the balance of power and also, in the French case, for national survival. Despite several peace initiatives by neutral parties (notably the U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, in 1916 and Pope Benedict XV in 1917), the conflict was too stark to be resolved by a diplomatic compromise—short of regime change, as in Russia. In fact the moderate opposition in Germany (democrats, socialists, and Catholics), who held a majority in the Reichstag, envisaged just this. In July 1917 they passed a "peace resolution" calling for more modest war aims plus constitutional reform and the restoration of civil control over the war effort. But this merely stiffened the resolve of Hindenburg and Ludendorff to pursue expansion by military means.

Yet the Supreme Command still faced the central conundrum of the war. Without a technical or tactical transformation of the battlefield, it could not achieve victory on the western front when the underlying tide of attrition ran against it. For in order to reverse the Entente's advantage in munitions and food supplies (reflected in rapidly worsening living conditions in Germany and Austria compared to the western powers), the German government took the calculated risk of unrestricted submarine warfare. After a tense few months the introduction of convoys in the North Atlantic defeated the menace while Germany suffered a second setback with the inevitable American declaration of war in April 1917. Ultimately U.S. strength more than offset the loss of Russia. By early 1918 all that remained was the gamble of a final German assault in the west, boosted by troops from the east, in the hope of securing the elusive annihilation of the enemy.

Ludendorff's offensive pounded first the British and then the French from February to July 1918. It destroyed one entire British army (the Fifth), reached the Marne, and exposed Paris to long-range bombardment. This was a tribute in part to innovative tactics (the use of specialized "storm troopers") and in part to the institutional resilience of the German army. Yet the Allied front re-formed and held, and in March the French general, Ferdinand Foch, became overall Allied commander. From mid-July to early August the balance tipped. The Germans were exhausted. They were worse fed and supplied than their opponents and faced Allied air superiority and massed tanks. There was still no breakthrough. The Allies relied on a preponderance of heavy artillery, now used with unprecedented accuracy, to force the Germans slowly back. Both the French and British (like the Germans) had pursued an uneven learning curve that resulted in better offensive tactics. The Allies also reaped the benefit under Foch of effective coalition warfare, while in the Americans they had the promise of virtually unlimited manpower. With the Macedonian and Italian fronts collapsing and its armies retreating from France and Belgium, the German military was forced to sue for peace and to accept the opposition program of constitutional reform. In late September, Ludendorff sought a suspension of hostilities. After negotiation, both sides agreed—the Germans to escape unconditional surrender, the Allies to avoid invading Germany. On 11 November 1918, the armistice on the western front brought the war to an end.


A conflict that relied on mass armies and determined the fate of states and nations naturally involved the bulk of the peoples concerned. The cohesion of the home fronts became vital to the outcome. It turned on several factors: the population's identification with the war, the economic roles that it was called on to perform, and the government's credibility in the face of hardship and attrition.

While few foresaw the nature of the war in 1914, the populations of the main powers responded with resolve to what was perceived as the defense of nation or empire. Everywhere, the lack of hostile reaction took governments by surprise, including Germany. True, the chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, had to insist that the military wait for Russia to mobilize first so as to secure the support of the Social Democrats, but this was reinforced by the brief Russian invasion of east Prussia. Everywhere, domestic politics were suspended in favor of unity—the "Sacred Union" (Union Sacrée) in France, the "fortress truce" (Burgfrieden) in Germany. This produced a "war culture" that polarized the world between the nation and its allies and a dehumanized enemy. While special legislation endowed governments with powers of both coercion and persuasion, including censorship and propaganda, war cultures arose above all from the self-mobilization of society (including intellectuals, political movements, and the churches). Cultural resources, from films and newspapers to popular song, expressed this cohesion behind the war.

War cultures also targeted the "enemy within" as a surrogate for the real enemy. Usually this meant "spies" and resident enemy citizens, the latter being interned by all the belligerent powers. But it could extend to ethnic minorities. In the worst case, the radical Turkish nationalists who had assumed power after 1907 in a Committee of Union and Progress turned on the Christian Armenian minority once war broke out, accusing it of aiding the Russians. From spring 1915 they engineered the slaughter and deportation to death in the desert of a million people. The term came later, but this was genocide.

As the strain of war told, maintaining the initial war culture became increasingly difficult. In 1917–1918 governments actively promoted propaganda to sustain morale both in the armies and on the home front. But the success of the outcome depended on other factors, notably the degree of economic hardship and social conflict caused by the war and the political credibility of the military effort and the regime itself.

One of the surprises to contemporaries was the need to mobilize economic resources for an extended struggle. The requirements of industrial and agricultural production—technical innovation, the division of labor, and commercial exchange—were at odds with the principle of mobilizing the male population for combat. Maximizing both military manpower and economic output was a challenge as fundamental as that of restoring the offensive. Indeed the two were intimately linked, since men without food and the right arms could neither break the deadlock nor sustain a war of attrition. In all the leading powers, an acute shortage of shells prompted the organization of a munitions effort. This was most effective when it co-opted private industrialists and financiers, allowing them to make substantial profits, and obtained the support of the trade unions in defense of the workers, many of whom were released from the front for vital production. Exceptional figures headed up this effort: the Liberal British politician David Lloyd George, the French socialist Albert Thomas, the German Jewish industrialist Walther Rathenau.

Yet by taking adult men from the front, the munitions effort caused tension with other social groups (peasants, shopkeepers, white-collar workers) whose menfolk were not similarly privileged, as well as with the soldiers themselves, expressed in the flourishing negative image of the "shirker." At the same time, it created a wartime working class, including large numbers of women and (in the French case) immigrants, who resented the high profits of businessmen and responded to escalating prices with strikes.

Successful management of the industrial mobilization meant developing state arbitration of labor disputes and involving trade unionists in the outcome. But the potential was there for dissident strikes which, in association with food protests, might challenge the state or even the war itself. The temptation was strong for states that feared organized labor (such as Russia and Italy) or faced an impossible tug between military and industrial manpower (such as Germany) to adopt more authoritarian solutions. In 1916 Ludendorff and Hindenburg implemented an ambitious plan to direct civilian as well as military workers as they retooled German munitions production. But the power conferred on labor by the economic mobilization was too great. The German plan foundered on necessary concessions granted to the workers, while state hostility in Italy and above all Russia radicalized labor protest. Together with the food crisis that the western Allies were spared, industrial unrest in 1917–1918 contributed to the revolutions in Russia and gained an antiwar edge in Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Germany.

Ultimately the capacity of the different belligerent powers to sustain the war depended on politics as well as on the military situation. Nations with well-established identities, a flourishing civil society independent of the state, and regimes that enjoyed broad legitimacy were best able to cope. This was notably the case with the western democracies (Britain, France, and ultimately the United States), which also enjoyed more favorable material conditions and simple, minimum war aims. Although only France was fighting for survival, there was broad agreement that German dominance must be ended by military means, a position embellished by Woodrow Wilson with the democratic principles listed in his Fourteen Points of January 1918. This is not to suggest that there was no innovation in government (notably in relation to the industrial effort) or to deny that there was disillusionment (especially in 1917) and some outright pacifism. But the democracies remobilized faith in the war effort in 1918, which was embodied in the charismatic personalities of Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau as British and French premiers respectively and of Wilson as the apostle of a new world order.

States with a narrow legitimacy and rigid institutions stood at the other end of the spectrum, even if their goal was essentially survival. Austria-Hungary faced the insurmountable paradox that it could not mobilize national identity within its multinational empire (and army) without reinforcing what it had gone to war to overcome. Russia faced the analogous issue in terms of social class. The tsarist regime could not promote an inclusive industrial mobilization without empowering the liberals and moderate socialists whom it took to threaten its existence. By 1916 economic requirements as well as military setbacks had arrayed the key political forces against it.

In the middle stood Germany. The solidity of its civic life provided continuity across the war and postwar periods despite economic hardships, so that it was never threatened with social breakdown on the Russian scale. Yet uncertainty over what it was fighting for made Germany's war aims deeply divisive. The long war turned the military goal of annihilating the enemy into the driving force of German politics. It was pursued with ever greater radicalism—industrial coercion, exclusive nationalism, and the dream of a German Europe. This strengthened the constitutional and democratic opposition, so that the war unraveled the fabric of the prewar regime. As the kaiser fled to Holland at the end of the war and a democratic republic was declared, a new Germany was left to make its peace with the old Germany as well as with the enemy.


For the Allies, the Armistice amounted to military victory. Under its terms Germany returned Alsace-Lorraine to France, gave up all territory occupied since 1914, and surrendered the High Seas fleet, while Allied troops occupied German territory west of the Rhine. In theory Germany could resume fighting should the peace terms prove unacceptable. In reality the army was in no position to resist. But no Allied troops marched to Berlin, thus creating the myth that the German military remained unbowed. The Armistice also encouraged the new republic to imagine that Germany might take part in the reconstruction of the European balance of power.

Nothing was further from the minds of the Allied leaders as they gathered in Paris in January 1919 for the conference that resulted in settlements with each of the enemy states, signed in the palaces that ringed Paris and that gave their names to the treaties: Versailles with Germany (June 1919), Saint-Germain with Austria (September 1919), and Trianon with Hungary (June 1920). The most fragile of the treaties, with Turkey, was solemnized in the former royal porcelain factory at Sèvres (August 1920). Negotiations were minimal, making the status of the vanquished clear and enforcing the victors' view of the war. Given the scale of the suffering and destruction, this was almost inevitable.

The Paris Peace Conference grappled with all four conflicts that had made up World War I: the balance of power, colonial rivalries, the disintegration of multinational empires, and national defense and liberation. To these the Bolsheviks added a fifth, revolutionary war. Although Lenin had taken Russia out of the war, trading space for time, this was tactical. By mid-1918 the Bolsheviks were resisting Allied intervention as well as counterrevolution. Over the following two years they remobilized Russia against domestic and foreign enemies in a war they saw as part of a "permanent" revolution that would engulf the heartlands of Europe. Only in August 1920, when the Red Army failed to eliminate newly independent Poland, did the revolutionary war subside, leaving the Bolsheviks to build socialism "in one country." Bolshevik Russia was absent from the reconstruction of Europe yet present in the minds of those carrying it out as a new threat.

The other conflicts found solutions after a fashion. The balance of power was restored as German ambitions were apparently put beyond reach. Germany lost some territory and population (additional to Alsace-Lorraine), principally to accommodate Poland, and fears of German "militarism" were addressed by permanent limits on the German armed forces. Morally these provisions were weakened by the ban on German unification with Austria, since national self-determination was one of Wilson's Fourteen Points, and also by the failure to implement the broader disarmament promised by the Treaty of Versailles. Along with Allied occupation of the Rhineland for fifteen years to secure German compliance with the treaty and a diaspora beyond the national borders, there was plenty to fuel disgruntled German nationalism.

Such resentment was matched by anxiety on the Allied side, especially in France. For if Wilson and Lloyd George became convinced that the peace settlement should not be so harsh as to risk German rejection, Clemenceau faced the task of converting military victory into long-term security in the face of a Germany that remained more powerful than France and whose home territory had not been devastated in the war. Moreover, the removal of Russia from the equation deprived France of the alliance on which its prewar diplomacy had depended. None of this might have mattered had the Allied military coalition that won the war assumed permanent form. But despite promises, the British declined to give the French military guarantees, fearing Continental entanglements now that the balance of power had been restored, while the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the peace treaty. Hence the temporary occupation of the Rhineland and the German obligation to pay reparations for wartime destruction became French substitutes for real security, turning both into running sores in Franco-German relations. In what amounted to an epilogue to the war, French and Belgian troops occupied the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr in 1923 to force a defaulting government to resume reparations, without which the hard-won victory of 1918 would have been severely compromised. This led to an upsurge of warlike sentiment and civil resistance in Germany before Anglo-American diplomacy reinstated a lower level of payments.

The colonial conflict was settled more summarily. Germany was stripped of its possessions, most of which were shared among France, Britain, and the British dominions. Japan reaped the reward of its collaboration with the British by taking German holdings in the Pacific and China. Also, the Near Eastern provinces of Ottoman Turkey fell to Britain and France. The British, who had captured Jerusalem on Christmas Day 1917, took the lion's share with Palestine and oil-rich Mesopotamia (Iraq), while the French acquired Syria and Lebanon. British encouragement in 1917 of Jewish settlement in Palestine helped create one of the most intractable conflicts of the postcolonial period.

Yet the peace conference represented the limits as well as the zenith of European colonialism. The new colonies were held as "mandates" of the League of Nations, with the intention of ultimate independence. The same issue arose with the older colonies that had participated in the war. Half a million French colonial troops, most from North and West Africa, fought in France, while the British used Indian soldiers in Europe and the Middle East. A sense of colonial entitlement fostering visions of independence was the result. This was even truer of the British settler dominions, whose imperial identity had produced extraordinary levels of volunteer participation. Not only Gallipoli (for the Australians and New Zealanders) but the western front was studded with sites (and soon with monuments) where troops from the dominions had suffered martyrdom, and this contributed to the growing autonomy of the dominions in the interwar years. Decolonization would require another world war, but the peace settlement pointed to the dissolution as well as consolidation of empires. Ironically, the loss of Germany's colonies in 1919 reinforced the orientation of the nationalist Right toward the colonization of eastern Europe in areas occupied by the army during the war.

The defeat of the multinational empires was the most decisive outcome of the war. Austria and Hungary were dealt with as separate nation-states by the peace conference, while Ottoman Turkey was reduced to Anatolia. Bolshevik Russia was a partial exception, since the many non-Russian elements of the dynastic empire were integrated into a new multinational state by means of authoritarian socialism. But even here, the western borderlands of tsarist Russia (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland) gained independence. In general, the peace conference endorsed the defense and creation of nation-states. French determination to secure reparations came only in part from fears about Germany's continuing threat to the balance of power. It derived above all from the belief that the nation had been defended at enormous cost against a gross violation of its integrity. Serbia was rewarded for its suffering by becoming the dominant core of a South Slav state, Yugoslavia, whose longer-term instability, ironically, came from its multinational composition.

This last point was relevant more generally. For if Wilson believed that self-determination and democracy were the twin sources of nationhood, almost all the new states in central and eastern Europe had ethnic minorities (amounting in the case of Poland to a third of the population), while few of them, apart from Czechoslovakia, possessed a democratic political culture. Defeated nations (Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria) were reduced in size leaving minorities in neighboring states and creating friction. Italian nationalists, whose desire to complete unification shaded into expansionist designs on the Balkans, were frustrated by the access to the Adriatic granted by the peace conference to Yugoslavia. Nation-states were not a self-evident basis for durable peace.

War smoldered on around the peace settlement. Finland and the new Baltic states struggled to secure independence from both Bolshevik and German forces. Poles clashed with German paramilitaries over disputed borders in Danzig and Silesia. Some Italian nationalists followed the protofascist Gabriele D'Annunzio in seizing the port of Fiume, which the peace conference had allocated to Yugoslavia, holding it illegally for over a year. The Irish war for independence from the British was followed by a bitter civil war over the half-measure of autonomy actually granted in 1921. Most convulsive was the final war of the Ottoman succession. The Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 not only deprived Turkey of its last remnant of European territory (except Istanbul) as well as the Near Eastern provinces but also undermined Turkish power in Anatolia by creating an Armenian state in compensation for the genocide. Along with the deployment of Greek forces in western Anatolia, this prompted a full-blown war of independence led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), a young officer who had distinguished himself in the Gallipoli campaign and who emerged as the founder of the Turkish nation-state. The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 reversed the peace terms of Sèvres in Turkey's favor, confirming the national integrity of Anatolia (including the elimination of Armenia) and the recovery of eastern Thrace in the Balkans. In the largest such transfer after World War I, two million Greeks were expelled from Anatolia and Thrace while Turks were moved in the opposite direction.

By the end of the interwar period the peace settlement had become widely discredited. The apparently harsh terms imposed on Germany and the failure to found stable democracies in eastern Europe were seen by many to have prepared a future conflict. Yet with greater hindsight, this seems superficial. For the deeper issues with which the Paris Peace Conference grappled only received lasting solutions in the 1990s, with a unified but peaceable Germany and stable nation-states in eastern Europe. This occurred after a further world war, a second genocide (of European Jews), mass population transfers in the 1940s, and a bitter conflict as Yugoslavia fell apart after 1991. There were no shortcuts in 1919, yet some of the solutions adopted were quite constructive in view of what came later. For the occupation of the Ruhr was followed by a Franco-German rapprochement based on peaceful negotiation to resolve future disputes and on Germany's entry into the League of Nations. The League itself, which had been set up by the Treaty of Versailles, showed the desire of many to create a new world order based on the arbitration of conflicts and collective security against aggressors. The League also advocated social reform as the corollary of world peace and pioneered international relief efforts to deal with the humanitarian crises left by the war (refugees, disease). It was via the League of Nations that the first steps were taken to plan the economic integration of Europe. Moreover, many of the new states of eastern Europe made progress in ethnic coexistence. If some of the issues at stake in the war remained intractable, the steps taken to address them before the Great Depression of the 1930s were not doomed to failure.

The war's legacy extended to domestic politics. Defeat brought violence and instability. This was true in Italy (which nationalists felt had been cheated) and in Germany, although the seizure of power by fascism and National Socialism also turned on a crisis of the state and the weakness of democratic traditions in both countries. Nonetheless, the war radicalized nationalism and provided a lesson in mass-mobilization that inspired fascist movements across Europe. Likewise, bolshevism was doubly influenced by the war. For if prewar Russia hovered on the brink of revolution, the world war decided what kind of revolution it would be, while the civil war of 1918–1922 reinforced the coercive nature of the new regime.

The victorious democracies experienced no such upheaval. Indeed, they displayed a strong urge to return to prewar "normality," which in the case of the United States was accompanied by significant disengagement from Europe. This was illusory. The massive military and industrial effort influenced politics, not least through the claims of various groups (veterans, workers, women) for reform in recognition of wartime service, claims that others resisted. But the climate of politics was no harsher than before, while the shock of the war fostered a belief that democracies should use military force only as a last resort internationally. Democracy emerged from the war more sharply delineated. In this respect, the tension between liberal democracy, authoritarian nationalism, and revolutionary socialism as doctrines was translated by World War I into a conflict between more highly differentiated kinds of state driven by competing ideologies.

Finally, the war left ten million dead, most of whom, apart from the victims of genocide, were soldiers. Though only a fifth of the dead of World War II, this was unprecedented. The victorious powers were able to create national monuments and rituals of mourning that centered on the figure of the "unknown soldier" (interred in Paris and London in 1920). This proved more problematic in a Germany divided by defeat, while in Bolshevik Russia there was no official commemoration at all. Locally (except in Russia), memorials proliferated in recognition of the soldiers' sacrifice, and as the former fronts returned to normality, cemeteries and battlefield monuments marked the sites of the slaughter. Although some felt despair and more perceived with irony the blow that Europe had dealt its own "civilization," many drew on traditional religious values for consolation or turned to political ideologies for understanding. But since the peace helped shape the meaning given to the conflict, the political divisions and international tensions of the 1930s suggested that the "war to end all war" might in the end turn out to have been merely the prelude to an even greater conflagration.

See alsoArmenian Genocide; Brest-Litovsk; Brusilov Offensive; Cavell, Edith; Chemin des Dames/Mutinies; Dawes Plan; Disarmament; Espionage/Spies; Haig, Douglas; Imperial Troops; Influenza Pandemic; Japan and the Two World Wars; Kitchener, Horatio Herbert; League of Nations; Locarno, Treaty of; Ludendorff, Erich; Owen, Wilfred; Peace Movements; Prisoners of War; Propaganda; Refugees; Rhineland Occupation; Russian Revolutions of 1917; Sassoon, Siegfried; Trianon, Treaty of; Unknown Soldiers; Versailles, Treaty of; Veterans Movements; War Crimes; War Memorials; War Neuroses; Warfare; World War II.


Audoin-Rouzeau, Stéphane, and Annette Becker. 1914–1918: Understanding the Great War. Translated by Catherine Thompson. London, 2002. A stimulating essay.

Bourne, J. M. Britain and the Great War 1914–1918. London, 1989.

Chickering, Roger. Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914–1918. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Gatrell, Peter. Russia's First World War: A Social and Economic History. London, 2005.

Hardach, Gerd. The First World War, 1914–1918. Translated by Betty Ross and Peter Ross. London, 1977. A still-useful economic history.

Horne, John, ed. State, Society, and Mobilization in Europe during the First World War. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Herwig, Holger H. The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914–1918. London, 1997. An excellent military history focused on the Central Powers but covering both camps.

MacMillan, Margaret. Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War. London, 2001. A study sympathetic to the peacemakers.

Mombauer, Annika. The Origins of the First World War: Controversies and Consensus. London, 2002.

Smith, Leonard, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker. France and the Great War, 1914–1918. French sections translated by Helen McPhail. Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

Strachan, Hew, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Cambridge, U.K., 1998. Good chapters on different aspects.

Winter, Jay. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge, U.K., 1995. Fundamental.

John Horne

World War I

views updated May 17 2018

World War I


Although not the first conflict to touch cinema, the Great War, from August 1914 to November 1918, was unprecedented in scale. The visual power of film, combined with the aural suggestiveness of music, endowed cinema with a unique social function during the war. In both documentary and fiction, the war rallied the film industry to produce mass entertainment, education, and, of course, propaganda, as the industry fell under increasing government control. By the end of the war, cinema had achieved prestige as an art form appealing to the middle classes through the new picture palaces. In Europe, however, the conflict placed previously dominant national cinemas such as those of France and Italy in stasis, in some cases never to recover. Others, such as those of Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia, found the blockade of foreign imports surprisingly fortuitous in fostering distinctive new cycles of production.


In the period of early cinema, the United States was primarily concerned with its domestic market, but from 1909 the commercial advantage of exporting film overseas became clear. Although Hollywood had successfully exported before 1914, the dominance it achieved a few years later was made possible by the war. France had been the world leader in film export, with Italy and Denmark close behind; indeed, France had been at the forefront of cinema's development, with pioneering filmmakers such as Georges Méliès (1861–1938) and the Lumière brothers (Auguste Lumière [1862–1954] and Louis Lumière [1864–1948]) and the world's number one film producer, Pathé. But when Pathé made an ill-timed move to concentrate on US distribution rather than production, France's grip on its internal market slipped, allowing 50 percent of films shown in 1917 to be American. In addition, the French film industry, like that of Italy when it entered the war in 1917, suffered from the shutdown of all cinemas and productions during the first months of the war. Once Hollywood's international distribution moved from London to New York, US film companies began to gain control of foreign distribution to Latin America and the Far East. The dwindling supply of film stock exacerbated problems facing the European film industry and affected others as far away as China. Suddenly an enlarged export market granted Hollywood more reliable profit margins; hence film budgets increased, giving Hollywood's often powerfully escapist product added international appeal. With Europe distracted, Hollywood began to organize its various independent studios into the vertically integrated industry that emerged after the war. By 1919 five major studios were in place: Universal (1912), Warner Bros. (1913), Paramount (1914), Fox (1915), and United Artists (1919), as well as the three component companies of MGM (1914–1917).

With the declaration of war in Europe, US opinion was divided, not least because it had close ethnic ties with all the parties involved. Despite calls from the United Kingdom and France for support, President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) chose neutrality over intervention and continued trade with the belligerent powers against a rising tide of attacks on American shipping. The first propaganda film to call for US intervention was J. Stuart Blackton's (1875–1941) The Battle Cry for Peace (1915). The oxymoronically titled film warned against complacency by depicting the destruction of major American cities after the lowering of national defenses. The film received silent backing from the arms manufacturer Hudson Maxim.

Films calling for "peace" included Herbert Brenon's War Brides, based on the emotive vaudeville "playlet" by Marion Craig Wentworth and released in November 1916. Although set in an imaginary kingdom, the film was pointedly contemporary in showing its heroine commit suicide rather than bear children to be sacrificed in future battles. As an answer to Blackton's film, Thomas Ince's (1882–1924) celebrated Civilization (1916), under the advertising slogan "PEACE—The Battle Cry of Civilization," was another allegorical narrative with a war-mongering king. The king directs the engineer Count Ferdinand to wage submarine war—plainly referencing the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania—before the count converts to pacifism and sacrifices himself and his ship. After the count's resurrection to spread the message of peace, the king witnesses a vision of Christ foretelling the horrors of war, an image that borrows from the semireligious postcards popular during the war. This spiritualist iconography was highly influential on film both during and after the war, as evident, for example, in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), as the ghostly "resurrection" of Rudolph Valentino's soldier returns to his grieving wife.


The United States entered the war on 5 April 1917. President Wilson called on everyone to "Do Your Bit for America," and this included the film industry. At every level—helping with recruitment and fund-raising, making training films as well as inspirational fiction features featuring charismatic movie stars—cinema worked to align the nation to the political and social needs of the day. Producers, distributors, and exhibitors developed an approach of "practical patriotism," finding that business and patriotism could be mutually beneficial. The public was encouraged to attend not only for entertainment, but to participate in sweepstakes to win Liberty Bonds, thus offering the incentive of indirectly lining the pockets of Uncle Sam. Although only a minority of features directly referenced the war itself, the number of war-themed films increased over the course of the war, from eight in May 1917, when public opinion was predominantly antiwar, to fifty-four (many of which were prestige productions) at the time of the Armistice in August 1918.

Cinemas were frequently decked out with bunting or portraits of President Wilson to spark patriotic interest, while the singing of the national anthem and other patriotic songs, slide shows of local enlisted men, public lectures on war topics, and even the raising of colossal flags at every show fostered feelings of collective identity. For the third Liberty Loan campaign, the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI) distributed a film by Douglas Fairbanks (1918, 'Sic 'Em Sam') and over 17,000 advertising trailers and posters. NAMPI, established in July 1916, regulated the various sectors of the film industry and in May 1917 formed a War Cooperation Committee to further the interests of both the industry and the government. The Committee was advised on the latest guidelines on matters such as food conservation, and produced campaigns and short propaganda films. The studios sent out stars such as Mary Pickford (1892–1979) and Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) to address the public while its members were attached to key departments and divisions of government and the armed forces. On 28 April 1917 Motion Picture News proudly reported that the serial queen Pearl White (1889–1938) had ridden a steel beam to the twentieth story of a New York building, unfurled an American flag in the breeze, and called for all young men to enlist.

The Committee on Public Information (CPI) was formed in April 1917, with the journalist George Creel as chairman, and with the Secretaries of State, War, and Navy as members. It functioned to sustain voluntary censorship and oversee the making, distribution, and exhibition of propaganda films, particularly through its control of export licenses. Thus if an overseas territory were found to be exhibiting German material, the threat of withholding the more popular American films could be used to gain cooperation. Additionally, 20 percent of any shipment of entertainment film had to consist of "educational" material. Although the committee's remit included "motion picture films and photographs," a new Division of Films was created in September that year. The eminent American critic W. Stephen Bush wrote to the British trade journal The Bioscope on 19 May 1917, describing his efforts to organize motion picture exhibitors across the southern states into "keeping the flame of patriotism burning brightly." Adding to the motivation behind such efforts were fears that Texas would become a "second Belgium" if Germany executed plans to invade from Mexico, whose civil war until then had been competing with the European war for US headlines.

Although the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation would not permit Cecil B. DeMille to travel to Europe to visit the front lines, D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) was granted statesmanlike authority there to shoot Hearts of the World (1918). The film, partly financed by the British government, told the story of a small French village beset by war; the crew made much-publicized visits to the trenches in France to record real-life action scenes that would be intercut with reconstructions. Billed as "A Love Story of the Great War," it became one of biggest films of the period. In April 1918, a month after the premiere of Hearts of the World, the historian Francis Trevelyan Miller wrote to Griffith, hailing him as "the Greatest of War Historians." On 5 April 1918 the New York Times reported that, when the film was shown to an invited Broadway audience of critics and servicemen, the pastoral scenes before the coming of the war registered the most profoundly: "the theatre broke into applause just at some particularly beautiful landscape of rural vista." Making the film's propaganda angle clear, at the end of the screening Griffith himself stood to give a short speech, broken with emotion. The crowd then cheered footage of British and French leaders, whereas a "representation of the Kaiser was eagerly hissed." The following month Griffith, as president of the new Motion Picture War Service Association, was charged with the task of boosting the US war effort through sales of war bonds. However, the film was not as big a success as the British government had hoped. Audiences had grown tired of war films of any kind and instead sought information from newsreels. Hearts of the World was rereleased with a revised ending as a "peace edition" in 1919.


In the United Kingdom the need to continue with everyday life resulted in a business-as-usual approach by cinema managers, echoing the practical patriotism of the United States. In British theaters during the winter of 1915, audiences of uniformed men laughed at the broad comedy of pantomime one moment and sang melancholy war anthems, such as "Keep the Home Fires Burning," the next; in similar fashion, cinema's blend of reality with escapism was readily accepted. Movie theaters accommodated audiences seeking refuge from cold homes, offering an evening's entertainment and of course information about the war. They also raised funds for the war effort, as on Cinema Day, 9 November 1915, when the day's box-office takings were presented to the king and used to purchase fifty ambulances. Like the slide shows in the United States, local theaters also screened "Roll of Honor" films, greeted with both cheers and tears for those lost or wounded "over there." Many local scenes were particularly poignant. One film shown at the Imperial War Museum, London, specially shot for locals at the Tivoli Cinema in Grimsby, featured the "chums" of the Tenth Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment in training. The patrons were most likely unaware, when the film was shown on 4 July 1916, that the battalion had been wiped out on the first day of the Battle of the Somme three days earlier.

After protracted negotiations with the War Office, the first official propaganda film, Britain Prepared, was shown on 29 December 1915, complete with sequences in Kinemacolor, the world's first "natural" color process. Despite support from former President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) and US government officials along with the Patriotic Film Corporation, the director Charles Urban faced significant opposition in America when promoting the film there because of its preparedness message. The first two official cameramen were also dispatched to the front at this time, and their first footage, screened early the next year, complemented the domestic character of "Topical Budget" shorts until that point. Initial objections to filming the conflict were driven by a distaste for what some saw as the working-class nature of cinema—thus lacking the sophistication appropriate to the endeavor—and the belief that tight media control had aided the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–1905. In February 1918 Pictorial News (Official), under the auspices of Lord Beaverbrook's (1879–1964) Ministry of Information (MOI), replaced the "Topical" shorts. During the war 240 films and 152 issues of the official newsreel were released.

Film screenings, often amid the ruins of barns and outbuildings, became an increasingly popular entertainment among both Allied and German forces toward the end of the war. The British Mobile Cinema Unit, headed by Major A. C. Bromhead, brought films to audiences of up to nine thousand servicemen and women, with screenings projected using searchlight dynamos onto mobile, two-sided screens that toured around the four fronts of the war during 1916 and 1917. Smaller gatherings took place at hospitals, and footage was recut for different local audiences. Beaverbrook appeared in one edition of the newsreel Pictorial News (April 1918) inspecting a fleet of ten "Cine Motor-Cars," which were to be dispatched to "depict war truths in the villages." Under Beaverbrook, the style of Pictorial News films developed into a much more sophisticated and efficient narrative, with improved intertitles and more dynamic editing. Popular stars such as Ivy Close (1890–1968) were featured in shorts such as Women's Land Army (1917), calling for volunteers while declaring "weeds, like U-Boats, must be exterminated!" as female workers are superimposed on the cornfields before the image of Britannia appears at the end to pay tribute to her "toiling sisters." Films in other countries made use of similar tableaux, appropriating suitably iconic and relevant figures such as Joan of Arc. Cecil B. DeMille's (1881–1959) epic Joan the Woman (1917), for example, presented Joan as a transnational figure of unity and reconciliation for French, British, and American troops through a framing narrative set in a World War I trench.

The landmark British film of the period, however, was The Battle of the Somme (1916), the first and most successful of the three official "battle" features produced between summer 1916 and spring 1917 and one of the most successful and influential British films ever made. An estimated twenty million people saw the film within six weeks of its August release and the majority of the population soon after. Having the biggest impact in 1916 were sequences (subsequently believed to have been simulated) of men forsaking safety by going over the top of the trenches to engage the enemy (the origin of the idiom "over the top") and lingering images of the British and German dead. Audiences were shocked by the film's uncompromising images of war. The Battle of the Somme was shown around the world; in Canada, where the Department of Militia and Defense had called for

b. King Wallis Vidor, Galveston, Texas, 8 February 1894, d. 1 November 1982

In a film career whose durability was unrivalled by almost any other director, by the early 1920s King Vidor had developed a reputation as a morally earnest director of meaningful, atmospheric pictures about ordinary people in extraordinary and often hostile environments.

Vidor's early years were steeped in the movies. As a teenager he filmed footage for the Mutual Weekly newsreels of US troops sent to the border during the Mexican civil war. He continued to sell material on a piecemeal basis while working as a clerk at Universal, submitting scripts under the pseudonym Charles Wallis. Vidor gained recognition writing and directing independent features with The Turn in the Road and The Other Half (both 1919), starring his wife, Florence. After short contracts with First National and building his own small studio, Vidor Village, which closed in 1922, Vidor worked separately with Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn before working under the new Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio in 1924, a relationship that would last twenty years. By turning down Ben-Hur (1925), Vidor was able to direct the World War I epic The Big Parade (1925). With a budget of $245,000, it is estimated to have made over $15 million in a few years at a time when few films made over a tenth of that. The film consolidated his reputation for working to erode social barriers through powerful images of ordinary people, as with the character played by James Murray in The Crowd (1928), the film that earned the director the first of six Academy Award® nominations during his career.

Vidor's first sound film was the all-black musical drama, Hallelujah (1929). During the Depression, his socially aware film Our Daily Bread (1934) called for cooperative living. His "war, wheat, and steel" trilogy was completed with An American Romance (1944). After a few formula features Vidor was on form again, with the celebrated melodrama Stella Dallas (1937) and The Citadel (1938), a British film set in a Welsh mining town. In 1939 Vidor spent three weeks on the troubled shoot of The Wizard of Oz, notably directing the "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" sequence, one of cinema's most poignant expressions of personal isolation and the desire to escape. Duel in the Sun (1946), a huge hit, is a gloriously lurid western with an all-star cast.

In the 1950s he made fewer films; his epic Italian-American co-production War and Peace (1956) brought Oscar® recognition once again, but his directorial career ended with Solomon and Sheba (1959). In 1979 Vidor was recognized with an honorary Academy Award® for "incomparable achievements as a cinematic creator and innovator."


The Jack Knife Man (1920), Peg o' My Heart (1922), The Big Parade (1925), The Crowd (1928), Hallelujah (1929), The Champ (1931), Our Daily Bread (1934), Stella Dallas (1937), Northwest Passage (1940), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Fountainhead (1949), Ruby Gentry (1952), Man Without a Star (1955)


Baxter, John. King Vidor. New York: Monarch Press. 1976.

Dowd, Nancy, and David Shepard, interviewers. King Vidor. Hollywood, CA: Director's Guild of America; Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1988.

Schickel, Richard. The Men Who Made the Movies: Interviews with Frank Capra, George Cukor, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Vincente Minnelli, King Vidor, Raoul Walsh and William A. Wellman. New York: Atheneum, 1975.

Vidor, King. A Tree Is a Tree. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953.

——. King Vidor on Film Making. New York: McKay, 1972.

Michael Williams

certain images to be censored early in 1915, some scenes of warfare were cut.

After The Battle of the Somme, Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) was the most significant film of the period for British audiences. The film was shown only in theaters and not cinemas, sparking debate among exhibitors, who felt they were being squeezed out because the theater showings attracted a middle-class clientele that did not normally frequent the cinema.

Both Allied and German governments had interests in influencing the populations of neutral countries through control of exhibition venues, particularly in Holland and Switzerland and also across Scandinavia. In February 1918 the Société Suisse d'Exploitation des Films, effectively a field outpost of the CPI, warned Washington that German agents were penetrating the best picture-houses in the larger cities of Switzerland and sent back black lists of firms trading with Germany. The Société attempted to screen war films on behalf of the Allies, with some success in that The Battle of the Somme was seen by some 75,000 Swiss. The American CPI and British MOI formed a joint company to ensure that a sympathetic cinema, exclusively showing American, British, and French films, could be established in each major city in the country. The two bodies discussed whether the company should attempt to block all German product but agreed on a ratio of one-third German to two-thirds Allied. At the same time, material exported to such sensitive destinations was to be carefully censored so as not to play into enemy hands. For example, a commissioner warned the War Trade Board that Spanish audiences had interpreted one Pathé film as an accurate picture of life in New York, inadvertently serving as propaganda for the Germans.


Given its supremacy before the war, French cinema was perhaps the hardest hit in Europe. After the initial closure, cinema-going actually boomed in France during the war, theaters and other entertainment venues having been closed for the duration. As there was insufficient French material to screen, Hollywood imports, particularly adventure serials, began to dominate, as did their European imitations. As in the United Kingdom, authorities were slow to produce war material for the screen. It was left to private producers to gather material until the beginning of 1915, when an agreement was reached with the War Ministry allowing them to continue filming under supervision, resulting in more than five hundred shorts, particularly the official newsreel War Annals; from 1917 this newsreel was also distributed in Britain with bilingual intertitles. From January 1917 an Army Cinema Section produced all footage, which all cinemas were obliged to screen. A new generation of French directors emerged in August 1918, among them Abel Gance (1889–1981), who was granted permission to shoot footage of battle scenes for his acclaimed antiwar feature J'accuse! (1919). Billed as "the most romantic tragedy of modern times," the film tells the story of a soldier, Jean Diaz, driven to the brink of insanity by the memory of his comrades being slaughtered needlessly on the eve of the Armistice. Gance powerfully conveys his indignation at the loss of a generation that fell in battle by showing the war dead rising from their graves to bear witness to the living. Scenes of the real-life war injured parading past the camera (Gance was supported by various veterans' organizations), presenting their disfigured bodies and faces in stark close-up, are among the most powerful images to come from the war.

Having led the way in screen epics just before the war with films such as the internationally successful Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914), Italy set the standard for fully realizing cinema's potential for visual spectacle and technical virtuosity, matched only by Griffith's Intolerance (1916). Only three months after Italy entered the war in 1915, the release of Sempre nel cor la Patria!(My Country is Always in my Heart, Carmine Gallone, 1915) marked the beginnings of the popular patriotic genre. Depicting an Italian woman's heroic self-sacrifice, the film gained a realistic sense of destruction from being filmed amid the recently earthquake devastated region of Abruzzo. Increased censorship of the harsher images of the war facilitated the blending of patriotic with fantastical elements and collectivity being individualised into the heroic struggle of enduring popular heroes and warrior imagery that would be appropriated by the Fascist party after the war. Machiste alpino (1916) brought the superhuman Machiste of Cabiria returned to the screen to join the war effort. Comedies and epics were produced alongside more overtly propagandistic features such as

b. Paris, France, 25 October 1889, d. 10 November 1981

Abel Gance was a pioneering and influential French writer, director, and producer known for his visual experimentation.

He made his screen debut in Molière in 1909, at the same time reluctantly accepting a job in a law office and hoping to make his mark on the stage. Struggling through poverty and illness, Gance set up a production company in 1911, and that year directed his first film, La Digue. Kept out of the war by continued illness, Gance achieved renown for his innovative optical effects (it is said that he introduced the close-up to French cinema) and mobile camera work as a director for the Film d'Art company with Mater dolorosa (The Torture of Silence, 1917) and La Dixième symphonie (The Tenth Symphony, 1918). These films were commercial and artistic successes, despite the concerns of his management that his visionary camera techniques were outlandish.

The most celebrated period of Gance's career began with his acclaimed antiwar feature J'accuse! (I Accuse, 1919), which was a hit across Europe and in the United States. After the death of his wife from influenza, Gance traveled to the United States to recover from his loss while also promoting J'accuse! across the nation. Despite the admiration of D. W. Griffith and the offer of a contract from Metro, Gance returned to France. His next film, La Roue (The Wheel, 1923), the story of a railway mechanic, won acclaim and would later be cited as an influence by both Jean Cocteau and Akira Kurosawa.

The six-hour Napoléon (1927), displaying technical virtuosity, is Gance's masterpiece. The film mustered a cast of thousands, choreographed across a panoramic screen. Gance's Polyvision triptych process involved the simultaneous projection of three adjacent cameras to produce often startling montage effects when presented in suitably equipped theaters. As with J'accuse!, which Gance reworked into a new sound version in 1938, the director obsessively revisited Napoléon throughout his lifetime, first adding stereo sound effects in 1934. The director's belief in the Polyvision format remained undiminished into the 1950s, its effect akin to the counterpoint of Greek tragedy, the emotional shock involving the spectator in the film experience.

Gance founded Les Films Abel Gance in 1933 but achieved little autonomy in his work and relied on international backing. Gance's early sound work affected his later reputation, not least because French critics were largely unsympathetic to silent directors who attempted to make the transition into sound. However, in 1979 Napoléon was meticulously restored and screened in London and then New York in its original format and with a new score. Living just long enough to witness the critical acclaim that ensued, Gance could be satisfied that his reputation, particularly in France, was finally being restored.


As Director: Mater Dolorosa (1917), La Dixième symphonie (1918), J'accuse! (1919), La Roue (1923), Napoléon (1927), Le Fin du monde (End of the World, 1931), Un grand amour de Beethoven (The Life and Loves of Beethoven, 1936), J'accuse! (1938), Cyrano et d'Artagnan (1963); As Writer: La Reine Margot (Queen Margot, 1954)


Kaplan, Nelly. Napoléon. London: British Film Institute, 1994.

King, Norman. Abel Gance: A Politics of Spectacle. London: British Film Institute, 1984.

Kramer, Steven Philip, and James Michael Welsh. Abel Gance. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Michael Williams

La guerra e il sogno di Momi (Momi's Dream and the War, Segundo De Chomon, 1917), in which a young boy, after reading letters from the front, dreams of a war fought by puppets and of saving his father, whom he finds has returned upon waking. Another propaganda tale, Come mori Miss Cavell, related the cause célèbre of Germany's execution of English nurse Edith Cavell in 1915. The emotive theme was also exploited by other nations, such as the British Nurse and Martyr (Percy Moran, 1915) and US The Woman the Germans Shot (John G. Adolfi, 1918), while the death of a Belgian nurse, Gabrielle Petit, was depicted for the first Belgian war film to be made after the war, La Belgique martyre (The Martyrdom of Belgium, Charles Tutelier, 1919). At the end of the war, despite strong production and the foundation of the Unione Cinematographica Italiana, Italian film was now behind changed international tastes.

In Germany the cinema initially was deemed to be a lower form of art than theater, and thus the export market was undeveloped. However, the industry was expanding as the war began, not least because of the huge popularity of stars such as Henny Porten and the Danish Asta Nielsen. Indeed, there was a strong link between those two countries. Before the outbreak of the war, neutral Denmark's Nordisk was the world's second-largest producer of films, with distribution networks spanning the globe from Russia across Europe to the United States. However, as the company owned profitable first-run theaters within Germany—of which the German government would soon seize control, buying out its German subsidiary, Nordische Film GmbH, to set up Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa)—its exports were deemed part-German and banned from many markets, from November 1915 including the United Kingdom, soon joined by France and Italy. The October Revolution in Russia in 1917 blocked further trade, leaving Scandinavia as the main remaining market. Denmark's increasing isolation prevented contact with developments elsewhere in film art, while dwindling production left only two of six film companies at the end of the war.

The private German firms Eiko and Messter-Film had produced newsreels from the start of the war, partly working as a consortium with other German companies. These were subsumed within the civilian Deulig (Deutsche Lichtbild Gessellschaft) company in 1916, promoting German culture and economic interests around the world. It was not until January 1917 that the German government established the military-controlled Bild-und Film-Amt (BUFA), charged with oversight of propaganda matters. Germany's isolation during the war resulted in increased domestic production, and the next step in the consolidation of production and state interest was to subsume BUFA into Ufa (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft) in December 1917 with 25 million marks of state capital, with the aim of deploying film to facilitate German success in the war. Ufa was built up from smaller companies, with production based at Babelsberg. This move anticipated that, at the end of the war, as a private enterprise Ufa would adopt a strategy of vertical integration under the leadership of Erich Pommer (1889–1966) and thus achieve dominance over the market. During the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), the company would benefit from an influx of talented artists from the former Austro-Hungarian empire and Russia, producing one of the most artistically dynamic, and internationally influential, cinemas in film history.

In Russia the borders closed to imports as the country entered the war. As elsewhere, the imperial government prohibited cameras from filming the actual conflict until late in 1916. However, cinema became the most popular form of entertainment, with 150 million movie tickets sold in 1916 alone. Despite a shortage of raw stock for filmmaking, it could be said that World War I saved Russia's indigenous film industry, as it did Germany's. Whereas once screens had been dominated by the French Pathé and Gaumont companies, from 1913 to 1916 the number of Russian firms making films rose from eighteen to forty-seven. Russia's isolation enabled a distinctive national style to emerge, particularly in melodrama. Stars such as Ivan Mozzhukhin (1889–1939) and Nathalie Lissenko (1886–1969) became hugely popular, and directors such as Yevgeni Bauer (1865–1917) produced work of world-class artistic quality. The Bolshevik Revolution changed everything as many personnel, including Mozzhukhin, fled the country. By 1919 the Russian industry was once again dominated by imports from Europe and the United States, with stars such as Charlie Chaplin becoming particularly popular. In the 1920s Vladimir Lenin's belief in cinema's primary importance for agitation and propaganda ("agit-prop"), as well as for entertainment, fostered an influential and politically engaged generation of filmmakers, including Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), Dziga Vertov (1896–1954), and V. I. Pudovkin (1893–1953).


With the 1920s came the jazz age, providing distractions from events that for many were far from resolved. In Germany the social and psychological trauma caused by the war inspired the Expressionist movement. Contemporary anxieties were played out in the distorted, fantastical settings of films such as Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920) and Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau, 1922). Although this style gave German films a distinctive national aesthetic, their imagery haunted other films, as in the labyrinthine sets of Universal's The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and, as portrayed by the British star Ivor Novello (1893–1951) (also the composer of the patriotic war song "Keep the Homes Fires Burning"), the "horror-haunted" protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger (1927).

More explicit touches of the war came in King Vidor's (1894–1982) landmark 1925 epic The Big Parade. One of the film's most haunting sequences shows a group of men slowly being picked off by German rifles as they march through a French forest. Instructing a drummer to create a metronomic beat, the men pace in a "ballet of death," an effect Vidor requested that cinema managers reproduce during screenings. Although acclaimed internationally for its visual virtuosity, some British critics attacked the apparent unilateralism of the film in excluding the British "Tommy"; however, its commercial success was unprecedented. Paramount's Wings (1927) also made a big impact on audiences, who were by captivated by its realism, enhanced by sound effects blasting from behind the screen and extensive use of Magnascope. Paramount's Magnascope projection process, which effectively tripled the size of the screen at key moments, was used for other war films, including Wings, Old Ironsides (1926), the British drama The Guns of Loos (1928) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). The latter, Universal's adaptation of the best-selling 1929 German novel by Erich Maria Remarque (1898–1970), was part of a wave of antiwar narratives that appeared beginning in the late 1920s, including two of Britain's most powerful and underrated films of the early sound period, Tell England (1931) and Journey's End (1930). A war veteran himself, James Whale (1889–1957) directed the latter, both the original stage play and the film based on it, establishing what has been claimed as the missing link between the war and Universal's horror pictures. Whale made Frankenstein a year later, with its bleak landscape and the seemingly shell-shocked gait of the monster, clearly influenced by the war.

Cinema emerged from the war a mass cultural phenomenon. The studio system was consolidated in Hollywood and strengthened its grasp on world markets, war conditions having precipitated the end of French cinema's dominance and the rise of German cinema. Although stars in each country had embedded themselves as home-front personalities, an exodus of talent streamed toward America, not least from France; the French comedian Max Linder (1883–1925) left for a $5,000 weekly salary in Hollywood. Chaplin, whose comic Shoulder Arms (1918), released shortly after the Armistice, was now earning cinema's first million-dollar salary, a sign of how times had changed. Whereas isolation had supported the independence of cinema in Sweden during the war, the loss of directors Mauritz Stiller (1883–1928) and Victor Sjöström (1879–1960) to Hollywood afterward contributed to a fall in fortunes for Svenska, the leading company. War narratives would resonate during the interwar years on both an implicit and explicit level in all forms of cultural production, particularly in the 1920s, when the images of the war continued to shape cultural memory.

SEE ALSO Propaganda;War Films


Brownlow, Kevin. The War, the West and the Wilderness. London: Secker and Warburg, 1979.

Campbell, Craig W. Reel America and World War I: A Comprehensive Filmography and History of Motion Pictures in the United States, 1914–1920. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland, 1985.

DeBauche, Leslie Midkiff. Reel Patriotism: The Movies and World War One. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Dibbets, Karel, and Bert Hogenkamp, eds. Film and the First World War. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995.

Hammond, Michael. The Big Show: British Cinema Culture in the Great War (1914–1918). Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2006.

Kelly, Andrew. Cinema and the Great War. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Paris, Michael, ed. The First World War and Popular Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Thompson, Kristin. Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Market. London: British Film Institute, 1985.

Williams, Michael. Ivor Novello: A Screen Idol. London: British Film Institute, 2003.

Winter, Jay. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Wood, Richard, ed. Film and Propaganda in America: A Documentary History. Vol. 1: World War One. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Michael Williams

World War I

views updated May 17 2018


The United States entered World War I in April 1917. By 11 November 1918, Armistice Day, it had sent an army of two million across the Atlantic and had contributed decisively to the defeat of Germany and the Central Powers. The brief involvement brought about the end of American isolation from the politics and tensions of Europe. It also increased the country's knowledge about industrial production, mass organization, and the destructive capacities of modern science. Over the succeeding two decades and beyond, these experiences flowed into American social life, politics, and literature. Writers who had lived through the war often invoked the conflict, overtly or by implication, as the threshold that they had crossed on a journey to personal and artistic maturity, political commitment, or a rejection of the compromised values of an earlier era. This idea is expressed in the lines of the poet Amy Lowell:

For I have time for nothing
But the endeavor to balance myself
Upon a broken world.

(P. 45)


When President Woodrow Wilson went before the United States Congress on 2 April 1917 to request the power to declare war on the Empire of Germany, the greater part of Europe and the Near East had been at war for almost three years. The spark that ignited the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina on 28 June 1914. Within a few weeks, a sequence of diplomatic threats, military mobilizations, and activation of treaty alliances culminated in full-scale hostilities throughout Europe. The so-called Triple Entente, an alliance between Britain, France, and Russia (a group later known, after the inclusion of Italy, as the Allies) found itself at war with the Central Powers, consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. Initially, the German invasion forces gained ground in Belgium and France but then found their progress blocked. From that point on, the war was marked by a combination of strategic stalemate, makeshift fortifications, and the profitless, mutual massacres that became known as trench warfare. By 1917 the so-called Western Front of the war extended for four hundred miles, from the English Channel to the Swiss border. The casualties suffered by all sides had been, and continued to be, immense. The war abounded in new and frightening technologies such as the flame-thrower, poison gas, and the submarine. The latter (originally an American invention from the time of the Civil War) came into its own in the shape of the German U-boats that scoured the Atlantic for British and French shipping. Merchant ships and vessels from neutral countries were also targeted by the U-boats.

In the United States, public opinion was divided, although the desire to keep the war on the other side of the ocean initially tended to override all other loyalties. The print media were flooded by various kinds of partisan propaganda as well as appeals for strict American neutrality. The chosen forms were not restricted to reporting and opinion pieces: in an era where poetry still found a place in the pages of newspapers, pro-British verse, for example, could appear in prompt, angry response to an anti-British poem that had appeared a day or two earlier. Beyond the shadowboxing, the first incident to touch Americans in any substantial way was the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania by a German U-Boat off the southwestern coast of Ireland on 7 May 1915, an attack that cost over a thousand lives including those of about 125 American citizens. Despite the ambiguous status of the ship with its cargo of munitions and its defensive armaments, much of the public saw only the cold-blooded murder of civilians and rejected German attempts at justification. For his part, President Wilson took a sharp and uncompromising line with the German government. The Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, was a convinced pacifist and neutralist and resigned after the Lusitania incident, believing that Wilson was mentally preparing for war with Germany. Wilson, however, ran for a second term as president in 1916 with neutrality as his central plank. His election to a second term suggested that Americans were still unwilling to risk lives and assets in a foreign conflict, despite a broadly supportive attitude toward Britain and France.

The revelation in early 1917 of the so-called Zimmermann Note, however, sparked a furious reaction in America. Actually an intercepted telegram, the message revealed that the German government was seeking a covert arrangement with the government of Mexico; in return for war assistance, the Germans promised to help Mexico recover territories lost to the United States in 1848. (The Mexican government denied any responsibility for the plan and declined the German offer.) This development helped convince President Wilson that nonintervention was no longer an option—much to the relief of the Allies, who knew that American troops in large numbers represented the only real possibility of victory on the Western Front. With the admission that the note was genuine and the announcement by Germany that it would begin unrestricted submarine warfare against any ships supplying the Allies, the antiwar movement found itself suddenly confused and divided. On 6 April 1917 the United States officially declared war on Germany.

The recruitment and training of a large military force began immediately. As American society organized itself behind the war effort, an overconfident take-charge mood prevailed, reflected in George M. Cohan's famous song "Over There" ("The Yanks are coming. . . . / And we won't come back till it's over over there"). Under the command of General John J. Pershing, the first units of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) shipped out for Europe during the summer of 1917. Known as the doughboys, the U.S. forces represented an enthusiastic but untried military that would be, for the first time, an American army at war on the European mainland. They were not, however, the first Americans to take up arms.


For some Americans, Paris had become the alternative to native cultural provinciality. For such people, the German invasion of France and Belgium in August 1914 was not merely a European crisis but a threat to the existence of civilization itself. Before the United States entered the war, American citizens had joined other armies to fight, as they saw it, for a cosmopolitan patriotism. The American squadron in the French Air Corps, known as the Lafayette Escadrille, was perhaps the most glamorous example. The poet Alan Seeger (1888–1916) no doubt spoke for many in his article in the New Republic in 1915:


For many young men in the early part of the war, its potential for trials of courage, suffering, and death seemed to fill them with reverence and a desire for self-sacrifice. This was true on all sides in the conflict, and Alan Seeger was one of the many who wrote in prose and verse about their vision.

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
on some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear . . .
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Alan Seeger, "I Have a Rendezvous with Death," North American Review 204, no. 4 (October 1916): 594.

Paris was in peril. ...Without renouncing their nationality they had yet chosen to make their homes here beyond any other city in the world. Did not the benefits and the blessings they had received point them a duty that heart and conscience could not deny? (P. 66)

Seeger was a Harvard graduate who had traveled in Mexico and Europe before settling on Paris as his home. He joined the French Foreign Legion in 1915. His letters to his parents and occasional articles in journals reveal an intense love of France and the French, as well as the kind of romantic insouciance that marked the English poetic style at that early stage of the war, when the full force of the ongoing slaughter had not quite penetrated the public mind. His manuscripts were collected by friends and published posthumously in 1916, but the traditional diction of the poems and their uncritical approval of the war led to the marginalization of his work in the postwar literary landscape. Today he is remembered for only one poem, "I Have a Rendezvous with Death," originally published in The North American Review, whose solemn cadences and naked lyricism combine to express acceptance of—almost a wish for—martyrdom in battle. Alan Seeger was killed during the night of 4–5 July 1916.

A fictional treatment of the fusion of aesthetic sensibility and belief in the universal value of French civilization appears in the work of Edith Wharton (1862–1937), who already had an established literary career of two decades' standing. Her attitudes emerge most strongly in the novella The Marne (1918). The young protagonist, Troy Belknap, is deeply influenced by his vacations in France as a boy and by his beloved tutor, Paul Gantier. When war breaks out in 1914, Troy is fifteen years old and frustrated by his youth and inability to join the struggle to defend France. Back home in the United States, he finds a smug isolationism to be the dominant attitude. He feels a sense of responsibility toward Gantier, who is killed in fighting along the Marne River. In 1917, on his eighteenth birthday, Troy leaves for Europe to drive an ambulance in France. Later, after the arrival of American troops offers him an unexpected chance to join the fighting at Château-Thierry, his feelings toward his homeland change radically.

Edward Estlin Cummings, later to become e.e. cummings (1894–1962), poet of lower-case name and experimental punctuation, went to Europe in 1915 as a driver with the Norton-Harjes Volunteer Ambulance Corps. A series of misunderstandings on the part of the French censorship authorities led to the arrest of Cummings and a friend in October 1917, which in turn led to imprisonment for three months in the La Ferté military detention center. This experience, combining personal hardship with the sense of being helpless before a Kafkaesque military bureaucracy, was the basis for Cummings's first book The Enormous Room (1922). The title refers to the holding cell in the prison, which was home to a diverse company of unfortunate men from all over Europe. His account is permeated by images of degradation and brutality, thrown into sharp relief by the poised, self-deprecating narrative voice that seems to be the protagonist's only protection against his environment.


As the country prepared for war in 1917, the Wilson administration encouraged labor to put class interests aside in favor of a unified national effort. Those who failed to compromise were ostracized and sometimes, as in the case of the socialist leader Eugene Victor Debs, put in prison. The relationship between federal authority and corporate America was also difficult at times. For both business and government, the war brought about confrontations over the ominous fact that inefficiency (in railroad management and operations, for example) could be profitable and difficult to eradicate. In contrast to World War II a generation later, the World War I performance of American industry in respect to logistics and supply for the troops overseas was unimpressive.

The struggle to exact "100% Americanism" from immigrant communities began to distort culture and education. Even before the United States entered the war, there were tensions between ethnic communities such as the Irish Americans, whose agenda involved support for nationalist resistance to British authority in Ireland, and the eastern establishment, who distrusted Catholics and inclined toward a pro-British view of the world. Americans of German and Austrian extraction were naturally somewhat divided in their feelings. After war was declared, suggestions of unpatriotic attitudes metastasized into a broad attack on German literature and thought, much to the disgust of people who saw a kind of cultural mob rule at work. "What on earth is the use of suddenly running down Goethe. . . . Why write books to prove he started the war . . . ?" (p. 150) wonders Amory Blaine, the protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise (1920). Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butler told faculty at the commencement ceremony in 1917 that the articulation of antiwar views would no longer be tolerated on campus. The broad front of the pragmatist philosophical movement, taking in writers such as John Dewey and Randolph Bourne and activists such as Jane Addams, split over support for the war. This division suggested that the implications for the future were enough to divide people who had been through much controversy and acrimony over the previous twenty years and who largely shared each other's attitudes and views. The war, and particularly the United States' intervention, cast a shadow over the progressive causes of the early twentieth century. These intellectuals had not suddenly become conservatives, but the war made them realize that they no longer agreed on what was and was not progressive. Indeed, new, radical political models such as Soviet communism were transforming the parameters of political loyalty and belief. The journalist and war reporter John Reed (1887–1920)—a graduate of the same Harvard class as Alan Seeger—came to see economic and political imperialism and class warfare as ultimately more important than conflicts between nations. Embracing the communist cause, Reed went on to write Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), a dramatic account of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. After his early death in 1920, he was buried in the Kremlin.

The scholar and writer W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), editor of The Crisis (a journal dedicated to advocacy for African Americans), devoted much time to encouraging blacks to join the armed forces and whites to accept the reality of black comrades-in-arms. The resistance to that pressure, however, particularly with respect to black officer commissions, training, and combat assignments, was stubborn inside and outside the armed forces. Nonetheless, for many African American servicemen France was an unforgettable experience. Socializing with white Frenchmen and women in unsegregated social contexts—much to the irritation of white American military personnel—the soldiers discovered a sense of freedom and social worth, and the experience resonated for many decades in the idealization of Paris and the French among black Americans. As Du Bois wrote in The Crisis in March 1919:

The American army is going to return to America determined to disparage the black officer and eliminate him from the army despite his record. And the black officer and private? They return at once bitter and exalted! They will not submit to American caste and they will ever love France! (P. 223)

Du Bois knew that black American units had been prevented from marching in the Bastille Day victory parade in Paris with their white fellow soldiers, something that had been an unchallenged right of French colonial troops from Africa. After that casually malicious gesture on the part of U.S. military authorities, it was perhaps no surprise that the stateside reality to which African American soldiers returned was also a bleak one, marked by race riots in northern cities in 1919. Nevertheless, the war had brought about subtle but irreversible changes in racial attitudes, and service overseas had shown many African Americans another world.


The 1920s and 1930s saw the appearance of a number of books set during the war, often with an antiheroic posture that echoed the dogged attitude of the ordinary recruit rather than the self-sacrificial enthusiasm of volunteers like Alan Seeger. John Dos Passos (1896–1970) published his long and angry novel Three Soldiers in 1921, a story of how the personality can be dehumanized and destroyed by military organization. The three men of the title, Fuselli, Chrisfield, and Andrews—from an urban working-class, a farming, and an educated middle-class background, respectively—come to know each other in the army. Each meets with frustration and brutality at the hands of the authorities. The chapter titles "Making the Mould," "The Metal Cools," "Machines," and "Rust" suggest anonymous industrial processes and the mass production of soldiers and weaponry alike. As Andrews says finally: "I'm sick of being ordered round. One more order shouted at my head is not worth living to be eighty" (p. 426). Dos Passos would go on to transform the motif of Americans at war into a more complex and powerful form in his 1932 novel 1919, the second volume in the U.S.A. trilogy.


The term for the American soldier in World War I has a mysterious etymology. The word goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century and may have its roots in the Mexican-American war of 1846–1848. One theory is that the pipe clay used to whiten the uniform belts worn by American troops had the appearance of the white clay used for adobe-based bricks, and the word "adobe" morphed into an English acoustic equivalent, "doughboy," which began in turn to attach to the soldier himself. Irrespective of its origins, that name failed to survive beyond World War I: "G.I." emerged in World War II, and to a large extent has remained to this day as a generic term for enlisted men and women in the U.S. Army.

The figure of the doughboy in Europe was also put on the stage in What Price Glory?, a dour, realistic play by Maxwell Anderson (1888–1959) and Laurence Stallings (1894–1968) about an AEF platoon stationed in a French village. It opened on Broadway in 1924 and was successful enough to permit Anderson to give up journalism and devote himself to a career as a playwright. Anderson's collaborator Stallings had put memories of his own war service in the AEF into the writing, and he would go on, over thirty years later, to write The Doughboys (1963), a subjective but conscientious history of the American soldier in France.

In 1926 William Faulkner (1897–1962), who had gone to Canada to enlist with the Royal Air Force as a pilot but was frustrated by the war's sudden end in November 1918, used the war as the backdrop to his first novel, Soldiers' Pay (1926). The return of a disfigured veteran, Lieutenant Mahon, to his southern home town and his failure to reach any mutual understanding with the people who surround him is not only a narrative of trauma and death but also a vehicle for Faulkner to illuminate the social and emotional makeup of the contemporary South. More successful than Faulkner at getting near the fighting, Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961) left his Kansas City reporter's job and joined a field medical unit with the Italian infantry. Out of this experience came, among other works, his third novel A Farewell to Arms (1929). The story of Frederic Henry and his doomed love affair with the English nurse Catherine Barkley is a modern romance carried on under the pressure of war. The chaos and possibility of injury and death are refracted through a laconic, pared-down style of writing for which Hemingway was to be praised, excoriated, and parodied. Nonetheless, the sparse dialogue and the grim ending represented, for many readers, the most authentic effort yet made by a writer to structure the meaning of his war experience, not only in the plot and the characters but also in the most intimate workings of his prose style.

The novel Company K by William March (a pen-name for William Edward March Campbell, 1893–1954) appeared in 1933. March, himself a much-decorated veteran, composed a series of 113 vignettes, each giving a particular soldier's perception of the company's journey from training camp through the fighting and into the postwar era. The narrative moves along laterally from one perspective to another, but a defining moment comes when the massacre of a group of German prisoners is ordered by the company commander, Captain Matlock—an act that psychologically destroys many of the men who take part in the shooting. After the war, one ex-soldier comes to believe that the misfortunes his family and their farm are suffering are retribution for his participation in the massacre, and he shoots himself. The organization of Company K reflects the combination of anonymity and shared intensity experienced by members of a combat unit. It suggests an atomized universe in which private thoughts and subjective psychic processes have very little to do with structures imposed from above, whether it be orders from officers or the hollow invocation of theological legitimacy for the war by military chaplains.

The delayed disillusion of a war veteran was reflected in another way—and in another media—in the early 1930s. As the Great Depression hit its peak, a young singer named Bing Crosby had a hit with his version of a song cowritten by the lyricist E. Y. Harburg, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Its narrator is a World War I veteran fallen on hard times who is ignored by former acquaintances as he panhandles on the street.


Despite the joyous celebrations on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, as crowds cheered and danced in the streets of cities across America, the problems of peace were to prove to be as complex as the demands of war. The Great War (as it became known in Europe) had become the most sustained mass slaughter in human history. Against the backdrop of several million French, British, Russian, German and other warrelated deaths, American losses of approximately 49,000 in combat and 73,000 from other causes out of a total AEF combat strength of 1.1 million troops on active duty seemed almost insignificant. The relatively low casualty figures and short duration of direct American involvement in the war, however, are misleading. The reverberations of the war—including the creation of the Soviet Union—in culture, economic life, and political loyalties would be heard in America through the prosperity of the 1920s, the economic crisis of the 1930s, and into the gathering storm of the next major conflict. The seeds of future hostilities were sown at the postwar Paris Conference (January to June 1919), which sought to regulate the new international situation and provide for appropriate arrangements with a defeated Germany: these arrangements were known as the Treaty of Versailles. Although the Armistice had been accepted originally on the basis of President Wilson's far-sighted "Fourteen Points" (promising, among other things, open diplomacy, self-determination, and fair treatment for the defeated nations) the final treaty was regarded by Germans as a humiliating punishment—the result of the uncompromising position of the French. The questions of German responsibilities, territorial losses, and reparations formed only one dimension of the Paris negotiations, however.

The collapse of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires had brought new nations into being and created new territorial problems from the Baltic to the Persian Gulf. Sometimes decisions made in Paris caused disaster elsewhere. Hemingway's brief short story "On the Quai at Smyrna" is a literary snapshot of the human suffering that followed an ill-advised plan to redraw territorial boundaries in western Turkey. Attempts on the part of Britain and France to block many of Wilson's proposed reforms of the international order soured the postwar era. Also, the United States' propensity to raise wildly optimistic expectations with its rhetoric of high moral purpose—expectations it could not satisfy—meant that much of the Versailles legacy was hatred and unresolved national and ethnic problems in Europe and the Middle East. The League of Nations, the world assembly that many fervently hoped would be the tool to avoid future armed conflicts, was hobbled before it could start by the disinterest of the European powers, impossible procedural rules, and the absence of the United States. (Congress failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and refused to approve the country's membership in the League.) President Wilson suffered a massive stroke in October 1919 and was incapacitated for the remainder of his term. The League of Nations, despite its birth among a chorus of good intentions, failed to exert influence on any significant military conflict during the two decades of its existence and was rendered irrelevant by the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

Some major constitutional reforms were probably accelerated by the war: the Eighteenth (Prohibition) and Nineteenth (women's suffrage) Amendments to the United States Constitution were the most important; the short life of the Eighteenth Amendment became an object lesson in the problems of trying to legislate social behavior. Some individuals and their actions would retain a niche in popular memory. The infantryman Sergeant Alvin Cullum York (1887–1964) and the aviator Captain Edward Vernon ("Eddie") Rickenbacker (1890–1973) were two such figures. Both were decorated war heroes who came from unassuming backgrounds—York from a remote corner of Appalachia and Rickenbacker from a Swiss American family in Columbus, Ohio—and their exploits became triumphal symbols of the American character. The transformation of that symbolism into organizational power was reflected in the founding of the American Legion in 1919. The legion would become the nation's largest veterans' organization and, at times, a powerful conservative lobby. It gave ex-servicemen not only effective representation on the national level but also a vehicle by which the atmosphere, loyalties, and hierarchies of military service could be retained in somewhat diluted form in civilian life.


A memorable later effort by an author to use World War I as a setting was William Faulkner's allegorical novel A Fable (1954). In this ambitious work (which won a Pulitzer Prize), the execution of a young French soldier on charges of pacifism and mutiny becomes a modern parable of a Christ-like sacrifice which embodies an appeal to reject war forever.

In the decades since A Fable was published, World War I has largely vanished as a theme or backdrop in American literature, drama, and cinema, even for writers looking for new angles on issues of race, conflict, and sexuality. (Indeed, parts of the war's history—the volunteer ambulance drivers, for example, or the African American soldiers' experiences in France—beg for some author or filmmaker to take up the story in an original way.) This lack of attention is a contrast to other American wars such as World War II and Vietnam. The Civil War also receives significantly more attention than World War I, even though it is more historically distant. The memory and meaning of those conflicts are still, for good or ill, inspirations for literary and cultural work in the United States. Perhaps involvement in World War I was too short-lived, and the subsequent marginalization of American ideas and interests, reflected in President Wilson's physical and political decline, proved too discouraging for extended consideration. Unlike the still-resonant names of Shiloh, Normandy, or Khe Sanh, the battlegrounds of World War I such as Château-Thierry and Meuse-Argonne have become obscure, on the far edge of American historical memory.

See alsoAmericans Abroad; Moon-Calf; War Writing; Weaponry


Primary Works

Dos Passos, John. Three Soldiers. New York: Modern Library, 1932.

Du Bois, W. E. B. "The Black Man in the Revolution of 1914–1918." The Crisis 17, no. 5 (March 1919): 218–223.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. This Side of Paradise. 1920. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960.

Lowell, Amy. "September 1918." In Anthology of Modern American Poetry, edited by Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Seeger, Alan. "As a Soldier Thinks of War." The New Republic 3, no. 29 (1915): 66–68.

Stallings, Laurence. The Doughboys: The Story of the AEF, 1917–1918. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Secondary Works

Farwell, Byron. Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917–1918. New York: Norton, 1999.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. New York: Random House, 2002.

Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877–1919. New York: Norton, 1987.

The United States Army in World War I. CD-ROM (3 discs). Washington, D.C.: United States Army Center of Military History, 1998.

Van Wienen, Mark W. Partisans and Poets: The Political Work of American Poetry in the Great War. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Martin Griffin

World War I

views updated May 14 2018


Imperial Russia entered World War I in the summer of 1914 along with allies England and France. It remained at war with Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Turkey until the war effort collapsed during the revolutions of 1917.

In 1914 military theory taught that new technologies meant that future wars would be short, decided by initial, offensive battles waged by mass conscript armies on the frontiers. Trapped between two enemies, Germany planned to defeat France in the west before Russia, with its still sparse railway net, could mobilize. Using French loans to build up that net, Russia sought to speed up the process, rapidly invade East Prussia, and so relieve pressure on the French. Berlin therefore feared giving Russia a head start in mobilizing and, rightly or wrongly, most statesmen accepted that if mobilization began, war was inevitable.

On June 28, 1914, a nationalist Serbian student shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, at Sarajevo. To most statesmen's surprise, this provoked a crisis when Austria, determined to punish the Serbs, issued an unacceptable ultimatum on July 23. Over the next six days, pressure mounted on Nicholas II but, recognizing that mobilization meant war, he refused to order a general call-up that would force a German response. Then Vienna declared war on Serbia, Nicholas's own efforts to negotiate with Kaiser William II collapsed, and on July 30 he finally approved a general mobilization. When St. Petersburg ignored Berlin's demand for its cancellation within twelve hours, Germany declared war on August 1. Over the next three days Germany invaded Luxembourg, declared war on France on August 4, and by entering Belgium, added Britain to its enemies.


Some Social Democrats aside, Russia's educated public rallied in a Sacred Union behind their ruler. Strikes and political debate ended, and on August 2, crowds in St. Petersburg cheered Nicholas II after he signed a declaration of war on Germany. Local problems apart, the mobilization proceeded apace as 3,115,000 reservists and 800,000 militiamen joined the 1,423,000-man army to provide troops for Russian offensives into Austrian Galicia and, as promised, France and East Prussia.

Although Nicholas II intended to command his troops in person, he was pressured into appointing instead his uncle, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich the Younger. Whatever its merits, this decision split the front administratively from the rear thanks to a new law that assigned the army control of the front zone. This caused few problems when the battle line moved forward in 1914 and early 1915. However, without the tsar as a civil-military lynchpin, it led to chaos during the later Great Retreat.

The Grand Duke established his skeleton Stavka (Supreme Commander-in-Chief's General Headquarters) at Baranovichi to provide strategic direction to the Galician and East Prussian offensives. These were to open on August 18-19 under the direct supervision of the separate operational headquarters of the Northwest and Southwest Fronts. Yet on August 6 Austria-Hungary declared war and on the next day invaded Russian Poland. This forestalled the Southwest Front (Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Armies, with 52% of Russia's strength) and it opened its own Galician offensive on August 18. Despite early enemy successes, the Front's armies trounced the Austrians and captured the Galician capital of Lvov (Lemberg) on September 3. A week later the Russians won decisively at Rava Ruska, and by September 12 they had foiled an Austrian attempt to retake Lvov. By September 16 they had besieged the major fortress of Przemysl and reached the San River. Resuming their offensive, they then pushed another 100 miles to the Carpathian passes into Hungary. Over seventeen days the Austrians lost 100,000 dead, 220,000 wounded, 100,000 prisoners, and 216 guns, or one-third of their effective strength.

The Northwest Front (First and Second Armies, with 33% of Russia's forces) was less successful. Ordered forward to aid the desperate French on August 13, Pavel Rennenkampf's First Army advanced slowly into East Prussia, was checked at Stalluponen, then defeated the Germans at Gumbinnen on August 20, and turned against Konigsberg. To the south, Alexander Samsonov's Second Army occupied Neidenburg on August 22, and all East Prussia seemed open to the Russians. But by August 23, when the new German commander Paul von Hindenburg arrived with Erich von Ludendorff as chief of staff, General Max von Hoffmann had implemented plans to defeat the Russians piecemeal. Accordingly, on August 2324 the Germans checked Samsonov and, learning his deployments through radio intercepts, withdrew to concentrate on Tannenberg. When the Second Army again advanced on August 26, it was trapped, virtually surrounded, and then crushed. Samsonov shot himself, and by August 30 the Germans claimed more than 100,000 prisoners.

This forced Rennenkampf's withdrawal, and during September 914, he too suffered defeat in the First Battle of the Mansurian Lakes. Despite German claims of a second Tannenberg and 125,000 prisoners, the First Army escaped and lost only 30,000 prisoners, as well as 70,000 dead and wounded. The Germans then advanced to the Niemen River before the front stabilized in mid-September. Again alerted by radio intercepts, they fore-stalled a Russian thrust at Silesia by a spoiling attack on September 30. Counterattacking in Galicia, the Austrians then cleared the Carpathian approaches and relieved Przemysl before being halted on the San in mid-October.

The Russians, repulsing a secondary attack in the north, finally held the Germans before Warsaw. As the latter withdrew, devastating the countryside, the Russians again drove the Austrians back to Kracow and reinvested Przemysl. This set the pattern for months of seesaw fighting all along the front. In the north, despite German use of poison gas in January 1915, the Russian Tenth Army withstood the bloody Winter Battles of Mansuria and held firm until April. In the south, by December they again were deep into the Carpathians, threatening Hungary, and holding positions 30 miles from Kracow. When relief efforts failed, Przemysl finally fell (with 117,000 men) in March 1915, leaving the Russians free to force the Carpathians.

Meanwhile, on October 2930, 1914, two German-Turkish cruisers had raided Russia's Black Sea coast. On declaring war, the tsar set up an autonomous Caucasian Front in which the talented chief of staff Nikolai Yudenich exercised real command. As he prepared the Caucasian Army to meet a Turkish invasion, the Turkish Sultan-Khalifa's call for jihad (holy war) fueled pro-Turkish uprisings in the borderlands. Then on December 17 Enver Pasha launched his Third Army, still in summer uniforms, on a crusade to recover lands ceded to Russia in 1878. By December 25 the Russians were fully engaged in the confused battles known as the Sarykamysh Operation. In twelve days of bitter winter combat Yudenich's troops, despite heavy losses, decisively crushed the Turks, and in January 1915 they invaded Ottoman Turkey.

During this period, the Russians held their own against three enemies in two separate war zones and showed that they had capable generals by routing two enemies and fighting a third, the Germans, to a draw. For most, the heavy losses at Tannenberg and other locations were overshadowed by the stunning victories elsewhere. Like other combatants, Russia was slow to recognize that it faced a long war, but it had avoided the trench warfare that gripped the French front. Yet Grand Duke Nikolai already had complained of shell shortages in September 1914. The government responded by reorganizing the Main Artillery Administration, and a special chief assumed responsibility for completely guaranteeing the army's needs for arms and munitions by both state and private production. If this promise was illusory, and other ad hoc agencies proved equally ineffective, for the moment the Russian command remained confident of victory.


On May 2 the seesaw struggle in the East ended when the Austro-Germans, after a four-hour "hurricane of fire," broke through the shallow Russian trenches at Gorlice-Tarnow. This local success quickly sparked the disastrous Great Retreat. As the Galician armies fell back, a secondary German strike in the north endangered the whole Russian

front. Hampered by increasing munitions shortages, rumors of spies and treason, a panicked Stavka's ineffective leadership, administrative chaos, and masses of fleeing refugees, the Russians soon lost their earlier conquests. Despite Italy's intervention on the Allied side, Austro-German offensives continued unabated, and in midsummer the Russians evacuated Warsaw to give up Russian Poland. Some units could still fight, but their successes were local, and overall, the tsar's armies seemed over-whelmed by the general disaster. The only bright spot was the Caucasus, where Yudenich advanced to aid the Armenians at Van and held his own against the Turks.

The munitions shortages, both real and exaggerated, forced a full industrial mobilization that by August was directed by a Special Conference for Defense and subordinate conferences for transport, fuel, provisioning, and refugees. Their creation necessitated the State Duma's recall, which provided a platform for the opposition deputies who united as the Progressive Bloc. Seeking to control the conferences, these Duma liberals renewed attacks on the regime and demanded a Government of Public

Confidence (i.e., responsible to the Duma). Yet by autumn Nicholas II had weathered the storm, assumed the Supreme Command to reunite front and rear, and prorogued the Duma. As the German offensives petered out, the front stabilized, and a frustrated opposition regrouped. With the nonofficial voluntary societies and new War Industries Committees, it now launched its campaign against the Dark Forces whom it blamed for its recent defeats.


In early December 1915, Stavka delegates met the allies at Chantilly, near Paris, to coordinate their 1916 offensives. Allied doubts about Russian capabilities were somewhat allayed by a local assault on the Strypa River and operations in support of Britain in Persia. Still more impressive was Yudenich's renewed offensive in the Caucasus. He opened a major operation in Armenia in January 1916, and on February 16 his men stormed the strategic fortress of Erzurum. Retreating, the Turks abandoned Mush, and by July, the Russians had captured Erzingan. V. P. Lyakhov's Coastal Detachment, supported by the Black Sea Fleet, also advanced and on April 1718, in a model combinedarms operation, captured the main Turkish supply port of Trebizond. In autumn 1916 the Russians entered eastern Anatolia and Turkish resistance seemed on the verge of collapse.

Assuming the mauled Russians would be inactive in 1916, Germany opened the bloody battle for Verdun on February 21. Yet increased supplies had permitted a Russian recovery, and on March 18, Stavka answered French appeals with a twopronged attack on German positions at Vishnevskoye and Lake Naroch, south of Dvinsk. Two days of heavy shelling opened two weeks of mass infantry assaults over ice, snow, and mud. The Germans held, and the Russians lost heavily but, whatever its impact on Verdun, this battle showed that trench (or position) warfare had arrived in the East. And like generals elsewhere, Russia's seemed convinced that only a single, concentrated infantry assault, preceded by heavy bombardments, and backed by cavalry to exploit a breakthrough, could end the deadlock.

Some saw matters differently. One was Yudenich, who repeatedly smashed the Turks' German-built trench lines. Others included Alexei Brusilov and his generals on the Southwest Front. Like Yudenich, they devised new operational and tactical methods that gained surprise by avoiding massed reserves and cavalry, and by delivering a number of simultaneous, carefully prepared infantry assaults, at several points along an extended front, with little or no artillery preparation. Despite Stavka's doubts, Brusilov won permission to attack in order to tie down the enemy forces in Galicia. When Italy, pressed by Austria in the Trentino, appealed for aid, Brusilov struck on June 4, eleven days before schedule. With no significant artillery support, his troops achieved full surprise on a 200-mile front, smashed the Austrian lines, and advanced up to eighty miles in some sectors. On June 8 they recaptured Lutsk before fighting along the Strypa. Again the Germans rushed up reserves to save their disorganized ally and, after their counterattack of June 16, the line stabilized along that river. In the north, Stavka's main attack then opened before Baranovichi to coincide with Britain's Somme offensive of July 1. But it relied on the old methods and collapsed a week later. The same was true of Brusilov's new attacks on Kovno, which formally ended on August 13. Even so, heavy fighting continued along the Stokhod until September.

Brusilov had lost some 500,000 men, but he had cost the Austro-Germans 1.5 million in dead, wounded, and prisoners, as well as 582 guns. Yet his successes were quickly balanced by defeats elsewhere. Russia had encouraged Romania to enter the war on August 27 and invade Hungarian Transylvania, after which Romania was crushed. By January 1917 Romania had lost its capital, retreated to the Sereth River, and forced Stavka to open a Romanian Front that extended its line 300 miles. This left the Russians spread more thinly and the Central Powers in control of Romania's important wheat and oil regions.

Yet the Allied planners meeting at Chantilly on November 15-16 were optimistic and argued that simultaneous offensives, preceded by local attacks, would bring victory in 1917. Stavka began implementing these decisions by the Mitau Operation in early January 1917. Without artillery support, the Russians advanced in fog, achieved complete surprise, seized the German trenches, and took 8,000 prisoners in five days. If a German counterstrike soon recovered much of the lost ground, the Imperial Army's last offensive shows that it had absorbed Brusilov's methods and could defeat Germans as well as Austrians.

By this date Russia had mobilized industrially with the economy expanding, not collapsing, under wartime pressures. Compared to 1914, by 1917 rifle production was up by 1,100 percent and shells by 2,000 percent, and in October 1917 the Bolsheviks inherited shell reserves of 18 million. Similar increases occurred in most other areas, while the numbers of men called up in 1916 fell and, by December 31, had numbered only 3,048,000 (for a total of 14,648,000 since August 1914). Yet their quality had declined, war weariness and unrest were rising, and, in late June 1916, the mobilization for rear work of some 400,000 earlier exempted Muslim tribesmen in Turkestan provoked a major rebellion. By 1917 a harsh winter, military demands, and rapid wartime industrial expansion had combined to overload the transport system, which exacerbated the tensions brought by inflation, urban overcrowding, and food, fuel, and other shortages.

Despite recent military and industrial successes, Russia's nonofficial public was surprisingly pessimistic. If war-weariness was natural, this mood also reflected the political opposition's propaganda. Determined to gain control of the ministry, the liberals rejected all of Nicholas II's efforts at accommodation. As rumors of treason and a separate peace proliferated, the opposition dubbed each new minister a candidate of the dark forces and creature of the hated Empress and Rasputin, whose own claims gave credence to the rumors. This "assault on the autocracy," as George Katkov describes it, gathered momentum when the Duma reopened on November 14. Liberal leader Paul Milyukov's rhetorical charges of stupidity or treason were seconded by two right-wing nationalists and longtime government supporters. The authorities banned these seditious speeches' publication, but the opposition illegally spread them throughout the army, and some even tried to suborn the high command. The clamor continued until the Duma adjourned for Christmas on December 30, when a group of monarchists murdered Rasputin to save the regime. Yet the liberal public remained unmoved and its press warned that "the dark forces remain as they were."


Russia therefore entered 1917 as a house divided, the dangers of which became evident as a new round of winter shortages, sporadic urban strikes and food riots, and military mutinies set the stage for trouble. On February 27 the Duma reconvened with renewed calls for the removal of "incompetent" ministers, and 80,000 Petrograd workers went on strike. But the tsar, having hosted an Inter-Allied

Conference in Petrograd, returned to Stavka confident that his officials could cope.

Events now moved rapidly. On March 8, police clashed with demonstrators protesting food shortages on International Women's Day. Over the next two days protests spread, antiwar slogans appeared, strikes shut down the city, the Cossacks refused to fire upon protestors, and the strikers set up the Petrograd Soviet (Council). When Nicholas II ordered the garrison to restore order, its aged reservists at first obeyed. But on March 12 they mutinied and joined the rebels. The tsar's ministers were helpless before two new emergent authorities: a Provisional Committee of the State Duma (the prorogued Duma meeting unofficially) and the Petrograd Soviet.

This list now included soldier deputies, and on March 14 the Petrograd Soviet issued its famous Order No. 1. This extended its power through the soldiers' committees elected in every unit in the garrison, and in time in the whole army. For the moment, the Soviet supported a newly formed Provisional Government headed by Prince Georgy Lvov. When Nicholas tried to return to personally restore order, his train was diverted to the Northwest Front's headquarters in Pskov. There he accepted his generals' advice and on March 15 abdicated for himself and his son. His brother, Grand Duke Mikhail, followed suit, the Romanov dynasty ended, and the Imperial Army became that of a de facto Russian republic.

At first both the new government and soviets supported the war effort, and the army's command structure remained intact. Plans for the spring offensive continued, although the changing political situation forced its delay. By April antiwar agitation was rising, discipline weakening, and Stavka was demanding an immediate offensive to restore the army's fighting spirit. Hopes for success rose when Brusilov was named commander-in-chief, and a charismatic radical lawyer, Alexander Kerensky, War and Naval Minister. Finally, on July 1, the Southwest Front's four armies, using Brusilov's tactics, opened Russia's last offensive. Initially successful, it collapsed after only three days, and the Russians again retreated. In two weeks they lost most of Galicia and more than 58,000 officers and men, while a pro-Bolshevik uprising in the capital (the July Days) threatened the government.

Kerensky survived the crisis to become premier, while Lavr Kornilov, who advocated harsh measures to restore order, replaced Brusilov. The Bolshevik leaders were now imprisoned, underground, or in exile in Finland, but their antiwar message won further soldier-converts on all fronts. The Germans tested their own Brusilov-like tactics by capturing Riga during September 16, but otherwise remained passive as the revolutionary virus did its work. Riga's fall revealed Russia's inability to fight even defensively and helped provoke the much-debated Kornilov Affair. When Stavka ordered units to disperse the Petrograd Soviet, Kerensky (whatever his initial intentions) branded Kornilov a traitor and used the left to foil this Bonapartist adventure.

Bolshevik influence now made the officers' position impossible. Desertion was massive, and units on all fronts dissolved. After Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky took power on November 7, the army became so disorganized that a party of Baltic sailors easily seized Stavka and murdered General Nikolai Dukhonin, the last real commander-in-chief. The army no longer existed as an effective fighting force and, with peace talks underway at Brest-Litovsk, the so-called demobilization congress of December sanctioned the harsh reality. In February 1918 the army's remnants mounted only token resistance when the Austro-Germans attacked and, despite desperate attempts to create a Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, forced the Soviet government to accept the diktat (dictated or imposed peace) of Brest-Litovsk on March 3.


Western accounts of Russia's war are dominated by the Tannenberg defeat of 1914, the Great Retreat of 1915, and the debacle of 1917. Yet the Imperial Army's record compares favorably with those of its allies and its German opponent, and surpassed those of Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. Despite many real problems, the same is true of efforts to organize the war economy. But the regime's failures were exaggerated, and its successes often obscured, by a domestic political struggle that undercut the war effort and helped bring the final collapse.

See also: brest-litovsk peace; july days of 1917; kerensky, alexander fyodorovich, kornilov affair; nicholas ii; stavka; tannenberg, battle of; yudenich, nikolai nikolayevich


Allen, W. E. D., and Muratoff, Paul. (1953). Caucasian Battlefields: A History of the Wars on the Turco-Caucasian Border, 18281921. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Brusilov, Aleksei A. (1930). A Soldier's Note-Book, 19141918. London: Macmillan.

Florinsky, Michael T. (1931). The End of the Russian Empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gatrell, Peter. (1986). The Tsarist Economy, 18501917. London: Batsford.

Golder, Frank A. [1927] (1964). Documents of Russian History, 19141917. New York: Appleton-Century; reprint, Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith.

Golovin, Nicholas N. (1931). The Russian Army in the World War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Heenan, Louise Erwin. (1987). Russian Democracy's Fatal Blunder: The Summer Offensive of 1917. New York. Praeger.

Jones, David R. (1988). "Imperial Russia's Forces at War." In Military Effectiveness, 3 vols., ed. A. R. Millet and W. Murray. London: Allen and Unwin.

Jones, David R. (2002). "The Imperial Army in World War I, 19141917." In The Military History of Tsarist Russia, ed. F.W. Hagan and R. Higham. New York: Palgrave.

Katkov, George. (1967). Russia 1917: The February Revolution. London: Longmans.

Kerensky, Alexander F. (1967). Russia and History's Turning Point. New York: Duell, Sloane and Pearce.

Knox, Alfred W. F. (1921). With the Russian Army, 19141917, 2 vols. London: Hutchinson.

Lincoln, Bruce W. (1986). Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution, 19141918. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Pares, Bernard. (1939). The Fall of the Russian Monarchy. New York: Knopf.

Showalter, Dennis E. (1991). Tannenberg: Clash of Empires. Hamden, CT: Archon.

Siegelbaum, Lewis H. (1983). The Politics of Industrial Mobilization in Russia, 191417: A Study of the War Industries Committees. London: Macmillan.

Stone, Norman. (1975). The Eastern Front, 19141917. New York: Scribner's Sons.

Wildman, Allan K. (1980, 1987). The End of the Russian Imperial Army, 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

David R. Jones

World War I

views updated Jun 11 2018

World War I

The Great War (World War I), fought between 1914 and 1918, was one of the most decisive events of the twentieth century. The political and economic catastrophes in its wake led to another, even greater conflict from 1939 to 1945, leading some historians to view the two World Wars as aspects of the same struggle, separated by an uneasy truce in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the ethnic and national-identity conflicts left unresolved at the Versailles peace conference of 1919 are still sources of tension and open hostility in the Balkans. It was in that fractious region of eastern Europe that World War I began when Serbian nationalists assassinated the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary in the city of Sarajevo. As a total war, World War I required the unlimited commitment of all the resources of each warring society. Governments were forced to allocate human and natural resources, set economic priorities, and take measures to ensure the full cooperation of their citizens. Some societies cracked under the pressure. Monarchies collapsed in Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. Even the victors, especially France and Belgium, were deeply scarred. The human sacrifices were appalling; the economic cost was overwhelming. World War I marked the decisive end of the old order in Europe, which, except for the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War and a few minor skirmishes, seemed to have weathered a century of relative peace after the Napoleonic wars that had ended exactly 100 years earlier.

The outbreak of the war had at first been greeted with jingoistic enthusiasm. It was not until the combatants experienced a tremendous loss of life in the trenches on the western front that this view was shattered. By the end of the war, pessimism and disillusion were endemic. For many in the West, the war denied the notion of progress. The same science and technology that had dazzled the nineteenth century with advances in medicine, communication, and transportation had produced poison gas, machine guns, and terror weapons. The Great War's legacy would include a deep pessimism, expressed in many forms, including antiwar literature that would be translated to the screen in the form of popular film.

World War I began when Serbian nationalists assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Austria's attack upon Serbia on July 28 led to war with her protector, Russia. Prewar alliances assured that Germany would declare war on Russia. When the French announced their intention to honor their commitments to Russia, Germany declared war on France. As the German armies passed through neutral Belgium to get at France, Britain declared war on Germany. Within a week of Austria's attack upon Serbia, the other four great European powers had gone to war over issues that few truly understood, or indeed, cared about. They seemed to have been swept along by their alliances in an inevitable cascade of falling dominos over which humans had little control.

On the Western front, the German armies smashed through Belgium and into France, where they were halted 25 miles north of Paris. Both armies tried to get around the other in a "race to the sea."When they failed, the exhausted armies dug defensive positions. Two lines of trenches, six to eight feet deep, zigzagged across northern France, from the Swiss border to the English Channel. The distance between the Allied trenches and those of the Germans depended upon the terrain, and ranged from 150 yards in Flanders to 500 yards at Cambrai. The great irony of warfare in the industrial age was that modern weapons forced the armies to live below ground and use periscopes to observe the other side. Steps in the sides of the trenches were used as platforms for firing at the enemy. The trench soldiers slept in sleeping holes dug into the sides of the trenches, where they suffered from rain, cold, poor sanitary facilities, lice, flies, trench foot, and a constant stench. Rats as big as small dogs fed on the dead. Of the casualties on the Western front, 50 percent were directly attributable to conditions in the trenches.

In 1916, the major efforts to break the stalemate came at Verdun, and on the Somme river. The Germans decided to attack Verdun, an historic city they knew the French would defend at all costs. The two sides fired more than 40 million artillery shells into a narrow front of less than 10 miles. When the firing ceased after 302 days, each side had suffered half a million casualties, with more than one hundred thousand dead. To relieve Verdun, the British opened an offensive on the Somme. An artillery bombardment of a million and a half shells was supposed to decimate the German positions. When the British army went "over the top" on July 1, however, they were cut down by German machine guns. On the first day of battle on the Somme, the British suffered 60,000 casualties, including 20,000 dead. After gaining five miles of territory, at the cost of 420,000 casualties, the British halted the offensive on November 13.

When the war began, the common assumption was that it would be over within six months. In the prewar years, many seemingly perceptive writers had written that modern economies were too integrated to accept a long war. There was also a general ignorance about what war in the industrial age would be like. There had not been a general European war since the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Bourgeois middle class life seemed boring and lacking in adventure. When World War I began, the armies marched to war with enthusiastic support. Intellectuals signed manifestos supporting the war. Sigmund Freud offered "all his libido to Austria-Hungary." Young men literally raced to the recruiting centers to sign up so they could be sure of getting into combat before the war was over. Fired by patriotism, and martial values of honor and glory, they were the first to be mowed down. In "From 1914," Rupert Brooke, the English poet, expressed his belief that his death in battle would sanctify a "foreign field" as "for ever England." The most popular poem of the war, John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" appeared anonymously in Punch in December 1915. The poem may describe how "the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row," but as Paul Fussell writes, the poem ends with "recruiting-poster rhetoric" demanding that others pick up the torch and not "break faith with us who die." These viewpoints changed with the reality of mass death and stalemate. Fussell observes that Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon came to an image of the war as lasting forever. Trench warfare, in which neither side could gain the advantage, regardless of their courage, honor, and valor, suggested that humans had lost control of their history. Indeed, what did courage, honor and valor have to do with modern war? In 1924, the German expressionist painter Otto Dix wrote thus of his trench experiences: "Lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, shells, bombs, underground caves, corpses, blood, liquor, mice, cats, artillery, filth, bullets, mortars, fire, steel; that is what war is. It is the work of the devil."

To raise the large armies needed to continue the struggle, governments turned to the use of posters. The British Parliamentary Recruitment Committee commissioned a poster featuring Lord Kitchener's head and finger pointing at the viewer. The caption read "Your Country Wants You." As enlistments declined, the emphasis shifted to shaming those healthy young men still in Britain. The message was blunt in the poster "Women of Britain say, GO." A more subtle, but perhaps as effective, message was expressed in the British poster showing a little girl sitting on her father's knee, with an open book in her lap. The writing at the bottom of the poster asked the question, "Daddy, what did You do in the Great War?" At the father's feet was a little boy playing with a toy army and about to place a new soldier in the ranks. The Committee would eventually commission 100 different posters, some of which were published in lots of 40,000. It is estimated that these posters generated one-quarter of all British enlistments. While most conscientious objectors accepted noncombatant alternatives, a hard core of 1500 refused to accept any position that indirectly supported the war. They were sent to prison where they suffered brutal treatment—70 of them died there. Poster art certainly contributed to this view that in time of war, a man's place was in uniform.

The failure of the armies to achieve success led each side to seek new allies, open new fronts, resort to new military technologies, and engage in new forms of warfare. In 1915, Italy joined the Allies, and new fronts against the Austrians were opened in the Swiss Alps and on the Izonzo River. In the same year, the British opened a new front at Gallipoli, but, after nearly a year of being pinned down on the beaches by Turkish guns, were forced to withdraw. The Germans introduced gas warfare in 1915; the British introduced the tank in 1916. The romantic nature of air combat yielded to a more deadly form as machine guns were added to fighter aircraft. Germans bombed British cities; the British bombed German cities. The British mined German harbors and blockaded German ports; Germany responded with unrestricted submarine warfare. In the face of American protests, following the sinking of the Lusitania, the Germans suspended their attacks in 1915.

In Germany, general rationing went into effect in 1916. The winter of 1916-1917, known as the "turnip winter," was particularly difficult. Bread riots, wage strikes, and a burgeoning black market that separated rich and poor threatened support for the war. There were also demands for political reform as a condition for continued support. In January 1917, the German government made the fateful decision to return to unrestricted submarine warfare with the full knowledge this could lead to war with the United States. The German decision was predicated upon the belief that Britain could be starved out of the war before the United States could train a large army and send it to Europe.

Up to this point, the United States had been officially neutral during the war, keeping with its long tradition of avoiding "foreign entanglements." By 1917, however, its sympathies and economic interests had shifted to the allied side. British propaganda had been highly effective in accusing Germans of atrocities in Belgium. President Woodrow Wilson resisted going to war because he feared what it would do to the progressive reforms of his administration, and that war would release ugly patriotic excesses that would be difficult to control. His hand was forced by the sinking of American merchant ships and the Zimmerman telegram suggesting that in return for a successful alliance, Germany would aid Mexico in its reacquisition of Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. Finally, Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, a move that Wilson promised would "make the world safe for democracy."

To raise a mighty army to fight in Europe, the American government was forced to resort to locally supervised conscription. Unfortunately, these local boards often lacked objectivity. Not only was preference on exemptions given to family and friends, but African Americans were drafted in disproportionate numbers, and conscientious objectors without religious affiliations were either drafted or sent to prison. The government sought to encourage enlistments and discourage draft resisters by using British posters as a model. The Kitchener poster was deemed to be so effective that Americans substituted Uncle Sam's head, and included the same caption "I Want You." The power of shame was also evident in the American poster that featured a young women dressed in sailor's uniform with the caption, "Gee, I Wish I Were a Man, I'd Join the Navy."

By 1917, all of the major belligerents had begun to regulate their industries and agriculture, borrow money to finance the war, ration food, and employ women in areas of the economy where they had not before worked. They also shaped consent for their policies and discouraged dissent. The War Industries Board, headed by Bernard Baruch, regulated American industries and set priorities. The Fuel Administration increased coal production by one-third and campaigned for heatless Mondays and gasless Sundays. The American Food Administration's appeal for food conservation included wheatless Mondays and Wednesdays, meatless Tuesdays, and porkless Thursdays and Saturdays. This voluntary conservation worked to such an extent that America was able to feed her armies, and increase food exports to allies by one third without having to resort to rationing. Before radio and television, with film still in its infancy, the poster was a highly effective method of generating support. Posters were used to inspire industrial effort, urge citizens to conserve needed materials, and in general, to support the war effort. Posters were also used extensively to gain support for the purchase of war bonds. While all the nations did this, none matched the American effort in this regard. For the third Liberty Loan drive, nine million posters were produced.

While voluntary sacrifices and poster art made everyone feel they were part of the war effort, they tended to generate emotional patriotic fervor. In America, this reached heights of absurdity. High schools stopped teaching German, frankfurters became hot dogs, and orchestras stopped playing Brahms, Bach, and Beethoven. None of this was humorous to German Americans, who were attacked verbally and physically. These attacks seemed to have the support of the American government. The Committee of Public Information, directed by George Creel, not only kept the public informed about war news through films and pamphlets, but sent out 75,000 speakers to churches, schools, and movie theatres, where they lectured on war aims and German atrocities. The Post Office denied mail delivery to "radical," "socialist," and foreign language newspapers and periodicals. The May 1918 Sedition Act made it a crime to speak or publish anything disloyal. This could be and was used against those questioning American participation in the war, the nation's war aims, and how it managed the war effort. Robert Goldstein, a Hollywood producer, was sentenced to 10 years in prison because his film The Spirit of '76 was not supportive of our British ally. The film, set in the period of the American Revolution, had shown British soldiers bayoneting civilians. Particularly vulnerable were Socialists such as Eugene Debs, who was sentenced to 10 years, and leaders of the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.), who were given 20-year sentences. Their offenses stemmed more from their opposition to capitalism than to the war itself. The U.S. Justice Department brought charges of opposition to the war against 2200 people, of whom 1055 were convicted.

World War I brought forth great songs that would be sung long after the war was over. Many of these originated in London music halls, French cabarets, and on Broadway. Some of America's greatest songwriters, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, and George Gershwin, participated in this creative explosion. The most famous of these songs were the French "Madelon"; the British "Your King and Country Want You," "There's a Long, Long, Trail," "Roses of Picardy," and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary"; and the American "Pack Up Your Troubles in an Old Kit Bag," "Over There," "Keep the Home Fires Burning," "Goodbye Broadway, Hello France," "Mademoiselle from Armentieres," and "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm?" These songs were sung at bond rallies, but were also taught to the troops by official army song leaders. Most of the songs were comic, sentimental, and innocent. They were offered as a means to lift morale and provide a human respite for soldiers in an inhumane existence. Only the unofficial French song, "La Chanson de Craonne," which declared soldiers doomed and victims of a wretched war, reflected the reality of the front.

What was most remarkable about the conflict until the end of 1916 was the willingness of European soldiers and civilians to accept the hardships the war demanded. Millions of soldiers had left home to face the horrors of modern war and endure life in the trenches of the Western front. This support collapsed in 1917. The German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare reflected this change of mood. Most significant were the riots and insurrection in Petrograd, Russia which led directly to the abdication of the Romanovs in March 1917. War weariness, the failure of Russian offensives in the summer of 1917, and the desertion of two million soldiers finally led to the October Bolshevik revolution and Russia's withdrawal from the war. In 1917, whole units of the French army refused to go to the front; those that did went chanting "ba ba ba"—the bleating of sheep being led to the slaughter. The British army's morale was close to the breaking point after the 1917 Flanders offensive resulted in 400,000 casualties for five captured miles of mud in which thousands of soldiers had literally drowned. At Caporetto, the Italian army reached its breaking point, and over 275,000 Italian soldiers surrendered in a single day.

British and French generals desperately wanted American soldiers who would be merged into their own units. Wilson and his commander John Pershing were totally opposed to this. They wanted the United States to field her own independent army, with its own commanders, support forces, and separate sector of operations. Both recognized that unless a U.S. army fought as an independent entity, the United States would not be able to shape the peace. The United States would fight neither for the imperialistic aims of the great powers, nor to restore the balance of power, but "to make the world safe for democracy" by advocating self-determination, democratic government, the abolition of war, freedom of the seas, and an international organization to protect the peace. These lofty ideals were expressed in January 1918 in Wilson's Fourteen Points speech.

With Russia out of the war, Germany transferred its troops from the eastern front to the western front, and launched its great offensive in the spring of 1918. As in 1914, the Germans were halted on the Marne river. American units put into battle at key places in the Allied lines fought well under French overall command. This time, the German army did not settle into a trench line, but was forced into a continuous retreat under the pressure of Allied armies. While the Germans were exhausted from four years of war, fresh American soldiers were arriving at the rate of 300,000 per month, and fighting as an independent army at Saint Mihiel and in the Argonne Forest. In other sectors, the Central Powers collapsed. Turkey and Bulgaria were out of the war by October 1918. Austria-Hungary disintegrated, as the Hungarians sought a separate peace, and Slavs sought their own nations. Within Germany, there were demonstrations at military bases, and in Berlin. When the Kaiser abdicated, the Germans asked for a peace based upon what they had previously scorned, the Fourteen Points. The Germans signed the armistice, and at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the guns went silent.

Four years of war had resulted in nine million deaths, one million of which were civilian. Many more millions of soldiers who lived through the war were crippled mentally or physically. So many soldiers were facially disfigured that a new branch of medicine, plastic surgery, was developed. A great influenza pandemic resulted in thousands of civilian deaths in Europe and the United States. A deep pessimism settled over Europe. Arnold Toynbee declared that the news from the front led him to believe that Western Civilization was following the same pattern that Classical Civilization had followed in its breakdown. His 12-volume A Study of History would argue that World War I was to the West what the Punic Wars had been to the ancient world. Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West was even more pessimistic. W. B. Yeats's 1919 "Second Coming" saw anarchy "loosed upon the World" and the coming of another Dark Age. T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" expressed the despair and hopelessness felt by many. Sigmund Freud admitted in Civilization and Its Discontents that it was the events of the war that led him to seek a second basic force at the core of human nature: the death instinct, in constant struggle against the life instinct. Vera Britton's autobiographical Testament of Youth described the shattering impact of the war on her personal life. This pessimism shared the same viewpoint that was expressed by the war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who wrote their poetry and letters while at the front. David Kennedy has observed that he had not found this pessimism amongst American soldiers. Whereas the pessimism of the European writers came from the destructive impact of the war itself, American disillusionment came from the belief that America's entrance into the war had failed to create the new world of Wilson's vision. In addition, progressivism and protection of individual rights at home seemed to have been reversed, and the nation retreated into isolationism rather than follow Wilson's lead into the new League of Nations.

While the European and American reactions to the war were different, there is one area of popular culture where they seem to have coalesced. Within a decade of the war, outstanding antiwar books and films were written and produced both in Europe and the United States. The German film Westfront 1918 (1930) depicted French and German soldiers dying without victory. Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937) was another antiwar attack upon the European aristocracy that brought forth the horrors of World War I. Ludwig Renn wrote a critically acclaimed novel, Krieg (War), that was an impressive piece of literature but never achieved the popularity of Erich Maria Remarque's antiwar novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), which described the experiences of German youth who had gone to war as enthusiastic soldiers. The film by the same title, released in 1930, was so relentlessly antiwar that Remarque had to leave Germany. In 1930, the film received an Academy Award for best picture. Another antiwar book made into a film was Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1932), which describes the fate of an American ambulance driver who deserts the madness of the Italian retreat at Caporetto. Two of the most powerful antiwar films done in the post-World War II period also dealt with specific events of World War I. Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) was based upon the mutinies in the French army. The film starred Kirk Douglas, but it is Adolph Menjou's depiction of a French general demanding the random selection and execution of three soldiers to cover his own failures that is the picture's most powerful image. Finally, Paramount's film Gallipoli (1981), appropriately starring the Australian actor Mel Gibson, faithfully describes what happened to those idealistic young Australian soldiers who went to war with enthusiasm and in search of adventure, only to be slaughtered like so many of their comrades on other fronts.

—Thomas W. Judd

Further Reading:

Chambers, John. To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America. New York, The Free Press, 1987.

Ellis, John. Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1976.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York, Oxford University Press, 1975.

Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: A Complete History. New York, Henry Holt, 1994.

Goldman, Dorothy. Woman Writers and the Great War. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Hardach, Gerd. The First World War, 1914-1918. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1977.

Harries, Meiron, and Susie Harries. The Last Days of Innocence: America At War, 1917-1918. New York, Random House, 1997.

Kennedy, David. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York, Oxford University Press, 1980.

Lyons, Michael. World War I: A Short History. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1994.

Rochester, Stuart I. American Liberal Disillusionment in the Wake of World War I. University Park, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, 1977.

Roth, Jack J. World War I: A Turning Point. New York, Alfred A.Knopf, 1967.

Silkin, Jon, editor. First World War Poetry. London, Penguin Books, 1979.

Stromberg, Roland. Redemption by War: The Intellectuals and 1914. Lawrence, Kansas, Regents Press, 1982.

Timmers, Margaret. The Power of the Poster. London, V & APublications, 1998.

Trask, David. The AEF & Coalition Warmaking, 1917-1918. Lawrence, Kansas, University of Kansas Press, 1993.

Winter, Jay, and Blaine Baggett. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. London, Penguin Books, 1996.

World War I

views updated May 29 2018

World War I


World War I, which spanned a four-year period between 1914 and 1918, erupted as a result of the complicated European alliance system. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, by Serbian nationalists sparked pan-European conflict when Russia, backed by France, declared their intent to defend Serbia, should Austria declare war. The Austrian government, with its ally Germany, declared war on Serbia three days later. British forces joined the French and Russians, but the United States, home to large immigrant populations of all of the fighting nations, resolved to remain out of the conflict.

The United States declared its neutrality, but the nation harbored Allied sympathies. United States manufacture and trafficking of munitions and supplies to aid British and French forces angered Germany and Austria. The German Navy attacked American ships, potentially loaded with contraband, in the Atlantic, and sent intelligence agents to conduct sabotage operations within the United States. In 1917, German hostility prompted the United States to enter the conflict in Europe.

The war ended in 1918, followed by the formal surrender of German and Austrian forces with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. However, World War I forever changed modern warfare, introducing the concepts of total warfare and weapons of mass destruction.

National intelligence communities. At the outbreak of the war, many nations had weak or fledgling national intelligence communities. The French government and military both maintained trained intelligence forces, but no central agency processed intelligence information, or facilitated the distribution of critical intelligence information. Russia had special agents of the Czar, and secret police forces, but its foreign intelligence infrastructure was almost non-existent.

The United States developed stronger domestic intelligence and investigative services in the decade before World War I. However, the country's lingering isolationism and neutral posture in the war hampered the development of a foreign intelligence corps until the United States entered the war in 1917.

Britain had a well-developed military intelligence system, coordinated through the Office of Military Intelligence. British intelligence forces engaged in a range of specialized intelligence activities, from wiretapping to human espionage. The vast expanse of British colonial holdings across the globe provided numerous outposts for intelligence operations, and facilitated espionage. British forces were among the first to employ a unit of agents devoted to the practice of industrial espionage, conducting wartime surveillance of German weapons manufacturing.

Of all the warring nations in 1914, Germany possessed the most developed, sophisticated, and extensive intelligence community. The civilian German intelligence service, the Abwehr, employed a comprehensive network of spies and informants across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and in the United States. German intelligence successfully employed wire taps, infiltrating many foreign government offices before the outbreak of the war.

World War I forced most national intelligence services to rapidly modernize, revising espionage and intelligence tradecraft to fit changing battlefield tactics and technological advances. The experience of the war formed the first modern intelligence services, serving as forbearers of the intelligence communities in France, Britain, Germany, and the Untied States today.

Sabotage. German intelligence trained special agents, most of whom used professional or diplomatic covers in the United States, to conduct acts of sabotage against United States industries that aided the British, French, and Russian allied forces in the war. International rules of engagement limited the ways in which Germany and Austria-Hungary could provoke or attack the declaredly neutral United States. German high command desired to cripple United States aid capabilities, but not provoke the nation to enter the conflict. German undercover agents attacked railroads, warehouses, shipyards, and military instillations in 1914 and 1915. Agents attempted to make these attacks appear as accidents, but United States authorities caught several potential saboteurs before they destroyed property, unmasking the German plot. Anti-spy hysteria fueled public fear and anger regarding the acts of German saboteurs.

German and Austrian agents carried out more than 50 acts of sabotage against United States targets on American soil during the course of the war. Most of the attacks occurred in New York City and the region surrounding New York harbor. The most famous and devastating attack, the sabotage of Black Tom Pier, shook buildings and broke windows across New York City and suburban New Jersey. The July 29, 1916, explosion destroyed several ships and waterfront ammunition storage facilities. The attack decimated Black Tom Pier, the staging area for most shipments bound for the Western Front in Europe.

German sabotage attacks in the United States, while successful, only managed to strike at a handful of military and shipping targets. The United States government continued to aid British and French forces in Europe, but the attacks inflamed pro-war sentiment.

Communications and cryptology. Advancements in communications and transportation necessitated the development of new means of protecting messages from falling into enemy hands. Though an ancient art, cryptology evolved to fit modern communication needs during World War I. The telegraph aided long-distance communication between command and the battlefront, but lines were vulnerable to enemy tapping. All parties in the conflict relied heavily on codes to protect sensitive information. Cryptology, the science of codes, advanced considerably during the first year of the war. Complex mathematical codes took the place of any older, simple replacement and substitution codes. Breaking the new codes required the employment of cryptology experts trained in mathematics, logic, or modern languages. As the operation of codes became more involved, the necessity for centralized cryptanalysis bureaus became evident. These bureaus employed code breakers, translators, counterintelligence personnel, and agents of espionage.

The most common codes used during the war continued to be substitution codes. However, most important messages were encrypted. Encryption further disguised messages by applying a second, mathematical code to the encoded message. Encryption and coding both required the use of codebooks to send and receive messages. These books proved to be a security liability for the military. During the course of the war, four separate German diplomatic and military corps code books fell into the hands of British intelligence, compromising the security of German communications for the rest of the war.

Both the Germans and the British broke each other's World War I codes with varying success. The German Abwehr broke several British diplomatic and Naval codes, permitting German U-boats to track and sink ships containing munitions. British cryptanalysis forces at Room 40, the military intelligence code-breaking bureau, successfully deciphered numerous German codes, thanks in large part to the capture of German codebooks. In 1917, British intelligence intercepted a diplomatic message between Berlin and Mexico City, relayed through Washington. The message, known as the Zimmerman Telegram, noted German plans to conduct unrestricted warfare against American ships in the Atlantic, and offered to return parts of Texas and California to Mexico in exchange for their assistance. Discovery of the Zimmerman Telegram prompted the United States to enter World War I.

Cryptology, once the exclusive tool of diplomats and military leaders, became the responsibility of the modern intelligence community. After World War I, many nations dissolved their wartime intelligence services, but kept their cryptanalysis bureaus, a nod to the growing importance of communications intelligence and espionage.

Trench warfare and the evolution of strategic espionage tradecraft. The advent of trench warfare necessitated the development of new surveillance and espionage techniques to locate enemy positions and gauge troop strength. Crossing "no man's land," the area between trench fronts, was dangerous, and using human scouts proved costly to both sides in the early months of the war. Military intelligence officers instead relied on networks of local citizens for information on enemy advances and supply lines. Finding sympathetic locals was possible for both sides in the trenches of Northern France, as the battlefront crossed the linguistically and culturally diverse German-French region of Alsace-Lorraine.

The airplane was a new invention when war broke out in Europe. Though the device was unproven in war, German commanders recognized that air combat and aerial bombardment were the most significant war tactics of the future. Britain developed fighter squadrons of its own to combat the German air menace. Despite the fame of the German Red Baron and World War I aerial dogfights, airpower was a very small part of the war effort on both sides. However, low-flying airplanes proved invaluable surveillance and intelligence tools, permitting military command to obtain accurate and up-to-date information on enemy trench locations and fortifications. British forces experimented with aerial surveillance photography, trying several cameras, but the medium had little success during the course of World War I.

German and Austrian forces introduced the use of balloons to monitor weather patterns and deliver explosive charges. Sometimes, dummy balloons were sent across enemy lines so that scouts could monitor where individual balloons were shot down, thus mapping probable enemy strongholds. British and French forces soon reciprocated by using balloons of their own, but by the time they introduced the devices, balloons signaled the impending use of a far more sinister weapon, poison gas.

Chemical weapons. Although military strategists during the nineteenth century noted the potential use of poison gas on the battlefield, the development of the first, World War Iera chemical weapon happened by accident. Seeking to conserve TNT, British and German forces substituted two different agents, Lyddite and Dianisdine salts respectively, into their explosive charges. The chemicals produced a tearing agent and mild respiratory irritant, sending victims into violent fits of sneezing.

The French first developed strong tear gas agents for battlefield use in June 1914. French forces first employed the gas in the form of tear-gas grenades, in August 1914. German scientists created a similar agent, and were the first to research various types of poison gas for extensive battle use. In October 1914, the Germans fired the first gasfilled shells. A few months later, experiments with filled shells were unsuccessful. Gasses failed to properly vaporize on the Eastern Front during the freezing winter. Variable winds on the Western Front made dispersal of gasses difficult.

By 1915, the German, French, and British armies all sought to develop chemical agents that would help end the relentless stalemate of trench warfare. Outdated battlefield tactics ordered soldiers to charge fortified trenches, across open fields strewn with barbed wire. Military commanders hoped poison gas would help soften or destroy manned defenses, permitting successful seizure of enemy positions.

The first major use of strong poison gas was an asphyxiant and respiratory irritant, chlorine, at the Second Battle of Ypres. German forces mounted a heavy bombardment of the French, British, and Algerian Ypres Salient. In the evening, the firing grew more intense, and Algerian troops noticed a peculiar yellow cloud drifting toward the Salient. French military commanders believed the yellow smoke hid an oncoming German advance, so soldiers were ordered to stand their ground and man machine gun defenses. As a result, many men died and the Salient was broken, forcing the Allies to retreat.

Germany drew immediate criticism for its inhumane use of gas on the battlefield. German diplomats assured rival powers that poison gas would be used regularly against their forces, provoking further condemnation. Both sides of the conflict employed agents of espionage to spy on the production of new weapons. Informants told Allied authorities about the possible German use of chlorine gas at Ypres. After Ypres, intelligence personnel changed its tactics to obtain specific information on the gasses each side was producing, and how they intended to weaponize the chemicals.

The British government commissioned Special Gas Companies to create poisons for wartime uses. On September 24, 1915, Allied forces retaliated the initial German gas attacks. Setting some 400 chlorine gas canisters along the German lines at Loos, British forces began the gas attack at dawn. A few minutes after sunrise, the prevailing winds suddenly shifted, driving the cloud of gas back over British lines. The operation was disastrous, Britain suffered more causalities on the day than did Germany.

After the incident at Loos and several similar gas reversals, both British and German forces experimented with different means of delivering poison gasses to minimize friendly-fire exposure to the chemicals. The creation of stronger, more deadly agents, such as Phosgene (an asphyxiant) and later Mustard Gas (a blister agent that burned exposed skin and eyes), necessitated a remote delivery system. Gas canisters were dropped from balloons and airplanes, but the system was not always reliable and targeting specific locations was difficult. Advancement in ammunition design, and the chemical agents themselves, finally permitted chemical agents to be placed in the payload of long-range artillery shells.

Despite more efficient delivery mechanisms, chemical warfare eventually became less effective on the battle-field. All armies in the conflict quickly devised protective gear to shield soldiers from exposure to chemical agents. Cotton wraps dipped in baking soda and gas masks greatly reduced the number of casualties from most gasses, though they offered no protection from the increasingly used Mustard Gas. Battlefield toxins became more deadly, especially with the limited use of cyanide derivatives and prussic acid, a crippling nerve gas. However, protective clothing and gas masks limited mortality from rare gasses.

Better intelligence also helped combat casualties incurred from gas attacks. Intelligence aided troops in the trenches to reposition to avoid an impending attack. Identification of the type of gasses possessed by the immediate enemy corps further detracted from the element of surprise, upon which gas attacks heavily relied. Despite its diminished success, gas continued to be regularly deployed.

The legacy of World War I. By the end of World War I, over 100,000 people were killed, and one million injured, by poison gas attacks. Those injured often suffered debilitating injuries, creating further public ire for chemical weapons. Civilians were inadvertently injured by contaminated areas, especially by the long-lingering mustard gas. After the war, the newly established League of Nations moved to amend the international rules of engagement to disallow the use of poison gas. Though the motion gained public and diplomatic support, military leaders were hesitant to agree to a total ban on chemical warfare. In 1925, the Geneva Protocol outlawed the use of chemical and biological weapons in war against human targets. However, the treaty did not prevent their further use, and chemical and biological weapons attacks by rogue nations or terrorist organizations have now reemerged as a global threat.

The Armistice created the political map of Europe that sparked the powder keg of World War II. The German government collapsed under the weight of reparation payments and hyperinflation, only to emerge from economic troubles under the reign of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. In the East, small ethnic nations were combined into larger states, embittering nationalists that hoped the war would bring freedom from Austrian, Russian, or German domination. Russia began a tumultuous revolution in 1917, withdrawing from the war to concentrate on domestic affairs.

The legacy of World War I extends beyond World War II, however. Many nations participating in the conflict realized the necessity for some sort of permanent intelligence services, whether cryptology and surveillance units, or large government intelligence agencies. The nature of war, and the business of intelligence in wartime and peacetime were altered by the events of World War I.



Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.


Black Tom Explosion
Room 40
World War I: Loss of the German Codebook

World War I

views updated May 23 2018


WORLD WAR I. The United States did not enter World War I until April 1917, although the conflict had begun in August 1914. After an intense period of military buildup and imperial competition, war broke out in Europe between Germany and Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers) and Britain, France, and Russia (the Allies). Turkey quickly joined the Central Powers and Italy joined the Allies in 1915.

Prelude to Involvement

Immediately, President Woodrow Wilson issued a declaration of neutrality. He was committed to maintaining open use of the Atlantic for trade with all the European belligerents. However, British naval supremacy almost eliminated American trade with Germany while shipments to the Allies soared. To counter this trend, German U-boats (submarines) torpedoed U.S. merchant vessels bound for Allied ports. In May 1915, Germans sunk the British passenger ship Lusitania, killing 128 Americans. Strong protest from Wilson subdued the submarine campaign, but it would emerge again as the war ground on and became more desperate. In late January 1917, Germany announced it would destroy all ships heading to Britain. Although Wilson broke off diplomatic ties with Germany, he still hoped to avert war by arming merchant vessels as a deterrent. Nevertheless, Germany began sinking American ships immediately.

In February 1917, British intelligence gave the United States government a decoded telegram from Germany's foreign minister, Arthur Zimmerman, that had been intercepted en route to his ambassador to Mexico. The

Zimmerman Telegram authorized the ambassador to offer Mexico the portions of the Southwest it had lost to the United States in the 1840s if it joined the Central Powers. But because Wilson had run for reelection in 1916 on a very popular promise to keep the United States out of the European war, he had to handle the telegram very carefully. Wilson did not publicize it at first, only releasing the message to the press in March after weeks of German attacks on American ships had turned public sentiment toward joining the Allies.

Gearing Up for War: Raising Troops and Rallying Public Opinion

On 2 April 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war and four days later all but six senators and fifty representatives voted for a war resolution. The Selective Service Act that was passed the following month, along with an extraordinary number of volunteers, built up the army from less than 250,000 to four million over the course of the conflict. General John Pershing was appointed head of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) and led the first troops to France during the summer. Initially, the nation was woefully unprepared to fight so large a war so far from American soil. The task of reorganizing government and industry to coordinate a war and then of recruiting, training, equipping, and shipping out massive numbers of soldiers was daunting and would proceed slowly. The first serious U.S. military action would not come until April 1918, one year after declaration of war. It would take a gargantuan national effort, one that would forever change the government and its relationship to the citizenry, to get those troops into combat.

Although there is strong evidence that the war was broadly supported—and certainly Americans volunteered and bought Liberty Bonds in droves—the epic scale of the undertaking and the pressure of time led the government, in an unprecedented campaign, to sell the war effort through a massive propaganda blitz. Wilson picked George Creel, a western newspaper editor, to form the Committee on Public Information (CPI). This organization was charged with providing the press with carefully selected information on the progress of the war. It also worked with the advertising industry to produce eyecatching and emotional propaganda for various agencies involved in the war effort in order to win maximum cooperative enthusiasm form the public. Its largest enterprise was the Four Minute Men program, which sent more than 75,000 speakers to over 750,000 public events to rouse the patriotism of as many as 314 million spectators over the course of the war. The CPI recruited mainly prominent white businessmen and community leaders; however, it did set up a Women's Division and also courted locally prominent African Americans to speak at black gatherings.

Gearing Up for War: The Economy and Labor

The government needed patriotic cooperation, for it was completely unequipped to enforce many of the new regulations it adopted. It also had to maximize the productive resources of the nation to launch the U.S. war effort and prop up flagging allies. The War Industries Board was charged with gearing up the economy to war production, but it lacked coercive authority. Even the Overman Act of May 1918, which gave the president broad powers to commandeer industries if necessary, failed to convince capitalists to retool completely toward the war effort. The government only took control of one industry, the railroads, in December 1917, and made it quite clear that the measure was only a temporary necessity. In all other industries, it was federal investment—not control—that achieved results. The Emergency Fleet Corporation pumped over $3 billion into the nation's dormant shipbuilding industry during the war era. Overall, the effort to raise production was too little and too late for maximizing the nation's military clout. American production was just hitting stride as the war ended, but the threat that it represented did help convince an exhausted Germany to surrender.

The government also sought the cooperation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and involved its top

officials in the war production effort, but very low unemployment emboldened union workers and it became difficult for the leadership to control the rank and file. Many workers connected Wilson's war goals—democracy and self-determination for nations—to struggles for a voice in their workplaces through union representation. However, the number of striking workers was lower in 1917 and 1918 than in 1916. The government hastily created labor arbitration boards and eventually formed a National War Labor Board (NWLB) in April 1918. The government had considerable success in resolving disputes and convincing employers to at least temporarily give some ground to the unions. When this novel arbitration framework disappeared along with government contracts in 1919, workers participated in the largest strike wave in the nation's history—over four million participated in walkouts during that year.

Women and African Americans in the War

For women workers the war also raised hopes, but as with labor as a whole, they were dashed after the conflict. The number of women working as domestic servants and in

laundering or garment making declined sharply during the war, while opportunities grew just as dramatically in office, industrial, commercial, and transportation work. The very limited place of women in the economy had opened up and government propaganda begged women to take jobs. However, few of these new opportunities, and even then only the least attractive of them, went to nonwhite women. Mainly confined to low-skilled work, many women were let go when the postwar economy dipped or were replaced by returning soldiers. Although women did gain, and hold on to, a more prominent place in the AFL, they were still only 10 percent of the membership in 1920. The government made some attempts through the NWLB to protect the rights of working women, although it backed off after the war. But women fought on their own behalf on the suffrage front and finally achieved the right to vote in 1920.

African Americans also made some gains but suffered a terrible backlash for them. There were ninety-six lynchings of blacks during 1917 and 1918 and seventy in 1919 alone. Blacks were moving out of the South in massive numbers during the war years, confronting many white communities in the North with a substantial nonwhite presence for the first time. Northward migration by blacks averaged only 67,000 per decade from 1870 through 1910 and then exploded to 478,000 during the 1910s. This Great Migration gave blacks access to wartime factory jobs that paid far better than agricultural work in the South, but like white women, they primarily did lowskilled work and were generally rejected by the union movement. The hatred that many of these migrants faced in the North forced them into appalling ghettos and sometimes led to bloodshed. In July 1917, a race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, left thirty-nine African Americans dead. The recently formed NAACP championed justice and democratic rights for African Americans at a time when black soldiers were helping to guarantee them for the peoples of Europe. Although job opportunities would recede after the war, the new racial diversity outside the South would not—and neither would the fight for equal rights.

Repression and the War

The fragility of a war effort that relied on a workforce of unprecedented diversity and on cooperation from emboldened unions led the federal government to develop for the first time a substantial intelligence-gathering capability for the purpose of suppressing elements it thought might destabilize the system. The primary targets were anti-capitalist radicals and enemy aliens (German and Austro-Hungarian immigrants). The former group was targeted through the Espionage Act of June 1917, which was amended by the Sedition Act in May 1918 after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia convinced the government to seek even wider powers to control public speech. The Department of Justice, through its U.S. attorneys and Bureau of Investigation field agents, cooperated with local and state authorities to suppress radical organizers. Many government agencies developed at least some intelligence capacity and the private, but government sanctioned, American Protective League recruited perhaps 300,000 citizen-spies to keep tabs on their fellow Americans. In this climate of suspicion, German-speaking aliens had the most cause to be afraid. War propaganda dehumanized Germans and blasted their culture and language. Well over a half-million enemy aliens were screened by the Department of Justice and were restricted in their mobility and access to military and war production sites. Several thousand enemy aliens deemed disloyal were interned until the conflict was over.

American Soldiers in Battle

The end of the war was nowhere in sight when U.S. troops first saw significant fighting in the spring of 1918, after the new Bolshevik government in Russia pulled out of the war in March and Germany switched its efforts to the western front. Under British and French pressure, General Pershing allowed his troops to be blended with those of the Allies—ending his dream of the AEF as an

independent fighting force. Now under foreign command, American troops helped stop the renewed German offensive in May and June. The First U.S. Army was given its own mission in August: to push the Germans back to the southeast and northwest of Verdun and then seize the important railroad facilities at Sedan. The campaign got under way in September and American troops succeeded in removing the Germans from the southeast of Verdun, although the latter were already evacuating that area. The Meuse-Argonne offensive to the northwest of Verdun was launched in late September and proved to be much more bloody. Although the German position was heavily fortified, well over a million American soldiers simply overwhelmed all resistance. This massive and relentless operation convinced the German command that its opportunity to defeat the Allies before American troops and industry were fully ready to enter the fray had been lost. As exhausted as the United States was fresh, the Central Powers surrendered on 11 November 1918.

In the end, two million American troops went to France and three-quarters of them saw combat. Some 60,000 died in battle and over 200,000 were wounded. An additional 60,000 died of disease, many from the influenza pandemic that killed over twenty million across the globe in 1918 and 1919. Many surviving combatants suffered psychological damage, known as shell shock, from the horrors of trench warfare. The casualties would have been far greater had America entered the war earlier or been prepared to deploy a large army more quickly.

Wilson hoped that after the war the United States would become part of the League of Nations that was forming in Europe to ensure that collective responsibility replaced competitive alliances. But America was retreating inward, away from the postwar ruin and revolutionary chaos of Europe. The government was suppressing radicals at home with unprecedented furor in 1919 and 1920 in what is known as the Red Scare. Progressive wartime initiatives that further involved the government in the lives of its citizens withered against this reactionary onslaught. But the notion of government coordination of a national effort to overcome crisis had been born, and the Great Depression and World War II would see this new commitment reemerge, strengthened.


Farwell, Byron. Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917–1918. New York: Norton, 1999. Focuses on military action.

Greenwald, Maurine Weiner. Women, War, and Work: The Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United States. West-port, Conn.: Greenwood, 1980.

Kennedy, Kathleen. Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens: Women and Subversion during World War I. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Luebke, Frederick. Bonds of Loyalty: German-Americans and World War I. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974.

McCartin, Joseph. Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modern American Labor Relations, 1912–1921. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Focuses on workers and war production.

Preston, William, Jr. Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903–1933. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. Focuses on home front repression.

Venzon, Anne Cipriano, ed. The United States in the First World War: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1995. Good general work.

Zieger, Robert. America's Great War: World War I and the American Experience. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. Stresses the home front.

Zeiger, Susan. In Uncle Sam's Service: Women Workers with the American Expeditionary Force, 1917–1919. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.


See alsoInternment, Wartime ; Palmer Raids ; Riots ; Sedition Acts ; Women in Public Life, Business, and Professions andvol. 9:America's War Aims: The Fourteen Points ; Dedicating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier ; Peace and Bread in Time of War ; The War in Its Effect upon Women ; Letters from the Front, World War I, 1918 ; Lyrics of "Over There," 1917 .

World War I

views updated May 23 2018

World War I



World War I (19141918), known as The Great War at the time, marked a profound political, economic, and social shift in international relations. Historian Eric Hobsbawm has referred to 1914 as the de facto beginning of the twentieth century.

The triggering cause of the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Habsburg heir, on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb nationalists. This matter might have stayed an internal dispute in Austria-Hungary, but other states quickly took sides. Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary made up the Central Powers. Russia stood up for the Serbs, and was joined by France and Great Britain in the Triple Entente.

According to one interpretation of World War I, a rigid alliance structure drew reluctant states into what would otherwise have been a localized conflict. Many of the belligerents did have alliances binding them to a particular side. For example, both Britain and France had pledged to defend Belgian neutrality, which was violated at the beginning of the war by German invasion. However, all of the belligerents also had compelling national interests for participating in World War I, including concerns about national insurgency and perceptions of the European balance of power.

Nationalism drew belligerents into World War I in two ways. Russia defended Serbia at least partly in the name of pan-Slavism, or solidarity among Slavic peoples. The Ottoman Empire had a different concern. Like its Habsburg counterpart, the Ottoman Empire comprised a variety of national groups, all ruled by a single dominant national group. The spread of democracy and other egalitarian movements in Europe challenged the legitimacy of the old empires. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire experienced various national uprisings, including those by Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Armenians. By helping the Habsburgs resist nationalist insurgency, the Ottomans hoped to avert future problems of their own.

In addition, many states were concerned about the changing European balance of power. The pentagonal balance created at the 1815 Congress of Vienna had been relatively successful, both in keeping European conflicts manageable and protecting the interests of Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany (previously called Prussia), and Russia. By 1914, however, several of these states were not content with the existing balance of power.

For example, Germany was a latecomer to imperialism, a process dominated by France and Britain, and therefore perceived itself at a disadvantage in both power projection and resource extraction. Although overseas imperialism offered limited possibilities by the early 1900s, Germany began to pursue a policy (Drang nach Osten ) of increased economic and political influence in eastern Europe, thus colonizing the region. German leaders argued that this would balance French and British power.

France and Britain, however, did not perceive themselves as at an advantage vis-à-vis Germany. Germany had benefited tremendously from the Industrial Revolution, especially since its natural resource base was well suited to industrial production. In 1870, Germany ranked third in industrial production behind Britain and France. By 1914, Germany led them both by a substantial margin. Britain and France feared that Germanys economic trajectory would soon render moot efforts at power balancing. To avoid German hegemony as a fait accompli, the other great powers would need to act quickly.

Russia, too, had balance-of-power concerns regarding Germany, with which it shared a tense history. The Drang nach Osten interfered with Russias domestic economy and trade with its neighbors. Furthermore, Russia had been at an enduring geopolitical disadvantage because it lacked warm water ports (i.e., ones in which the water does not freeze), which limited its military and commercial expansion. Defeating the Central Powers could mean Russian access to Germanys Baltic ports and the Mediterranean Sea via Turkish straits.


Once the war began, its course was horrifyingly unique to European experience. Germany expanded the aggression outside of Austria-Hungary by implementing the Schlieffen Plan, a military strategy designed to prevent Germany from fighting on two fronts simultaneously. The existence of such a plan reflected the influence of prevailing social attitudes on military doctrine. The popularity of ideas such as Social Darwinism, a perversion of Charles Darwins concept of natural selection then applied to human social interaction, bred a pan-European cult of the offensive, or fanatical confidence in initial aggression as the guarantor of victory. Darwin argued that organisms with traits well suited to their environment would be the most likely to survive and reproduce. The Social Darwinist ideal twisted this commentary to argue that powerful groups had the ability, even the right, to dominate weaker ones and to mold human relations as they saw fit. As a result, states generated extremely aggressive military grand strategiestheir overall plans for using the military instrument of foreign policy. For example, Germanys Schlieffen Plan called for the speedy conquest of France, via neutral Belgium, so German forces could then focus on an eastern front against Russia, which would mobilize relatively slowly for geographic and technological reasons.

The reality of World War I looked very little like the Schlieffen Plan. In early August 1914, Germany attacked Belgium. Reinforced by troops from Britain and France, Belgium tenaciously resisted German invasion. Russia, having anticipated conflict with Germany and availing itself of technological advances such as railroads, mobilized faster than Germany had anticipated. Within weeks, Germany found itself caught in a two-front war.

This conflict was unlike any Europe had seen before. A popular slogan claimed that soldiers marching off in August 1914 would be home before the leaves fall from the trees, but even after months the two sides had made little progress toward their war aims. Various conditions of the war made territorial conquest difficult. In the west, the extremely flat terrain of Southwestern Belgium provided little natural shelter. This encouraged trench warfare, the digging of passageways open to the surface, from which soldiers could attack with at least minimal cover. The introduction of barbed wire assisted in this process and in holding territory. Capturing territory from the trenches was difficult. Instead, World War I became a war of attrition, in which victory would be defined by exhausting the enemys resources rather than by superior mobility and territorial conquest. Military engagement frequently ended in deadlock, as when the 1916 German attack at Verdun preempted an Entente offensive on the Somme, but did not achieve the larger goal of crippling the French. Later that year, Britain launched its first major offensive of the war, at the Somme. In four months the Entente lost some 600,000 men while gaining only a few miles of territory. For years, neither side had an enduring battlefield advantage, although both expended unprecedented amounts of materiel and human lives. At least twenty million soldiers were killed or wounded during the war.

Military leaders introduced destructive new technologies, attempting to break the trench stalemate. Machine guns allowed for tremendous firepower and resulted in devastating casualties, as did tanks and submarines as new weapons platforms. Poison gas, introduced by Germany at Ypres in 1915, was difficult to control in deployment and undetectable until its effects were irreversible; gas caused pain, burns, other physical trauma, and death. These conditions eventually generated a sense of futility and ennui among many soldiers, and caused mutiny late in the war, such as that of the French army in 1917. One of the lasting consequences of these battle conditions was the emergence of shell shock (today known as post-traumatic stress disorder), which disabled thousands of soldiers who had survived the fighting.

On the eastern front, armies enjoyed greater mobility but suffered staggering casualties in the face of the technological innovations. In 1917 Russia withdrew from the conflict because of the Bolshevik Revolution. Britain and France appealed to the United States, which had been supplying their war effort for some time, to take Russias place. Although President Woodrow Wilson (18561924) had campaigned on a no-war platform, the economic significance, in particular of Britain and France, finally persuaded him to change his position. With the declaration of war by the U.S. Congress on April 6, 1917, the United States formally allied itself with Britain and France.

The new influx of American resources and personnel, beginning in earnest in the summer of 1918, was too much for Germany. Recognizing that Germany could not win a war of attrition against this energetic, well-supplied new enemy, the German navy mutinied, popular revolution led the Kaiser to abdicate, and the new government agreed to an armistice on the Ententes terms. The agreement was signed on November 11, 1918, at 11: 00 a.m. For many Germans, the Entente victory seemed illegitimate. Germany had not been outmaneuvered on the battlefield and victorious Entente troops did not capture Berlin. Rather, the Entente seemed to have won by calling in outsiders to the dispute; this said nothing about Germanys prowess vis-à-vis France and Britain.

Beginning in January 1919, the former belligerents met in Paris to formulate the peace treaty, known as the Treaty of Versailles after the palace in which it was signed. President Wilson attended the conference, to the surprise and consternation of many of his counterparts, making him the first sitting U.S. president to visit a foreign country. Two major goals of the treaty were to render Germany harmless and to avoid future problems with national insurgency. To achieve the first goal the victors implemented a number of programs targeting Germany, including reparation payments, disarmament, and neutralization of territory. To achieve the second goal, the victors promoted national selfdetermination for European ethnic groups, redrawing the map of eastern Europe so that the political boundaries more closely matched the homelands of ethnic groups.

SEE ALSO Colonialism; Darwinism, Social; Genocide; Imperialism; Isolationism; Monarchy; Nationalism and Nationality; Ottoman Empire; Patriotism; PostTraumatic Stress; Revolution; Russian Revolution; War; Wilson, Woodrow; World War II


Ferro, Marc. 1973. The Great War, 19141918. Trans. Nicole Stone. London: Routledge & K. Paul.

Fussell, Paul. 1975. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kennedy, David M. 1980. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Keylor, William R. 2001. Germanys Bid for European Dominance (19141918). In The Twentieth-Century World, an International History. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Van Evera, Stephen. 1984. The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War. International Security 9 (1): 58107.

Lisa L. Ferrari

World War I

views updated Jun 27 2018


War involving the Central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) against the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Greece, Romania, Italy, Portugal, Serbia, Montenegro, Japan, and the United States).

World War I (then called the Great War) began on 28 July 1914, when Austria declared war on Serbia (ostensibly because a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the throne, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife on 28 June); on 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia; on 3 August, Germany declared war on France; on 4 August, Germany invaded Belgium.

In retaliation and to aid an ally, Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August. The Russians crossed their western border at the Ukraine to enter Austro-Hungarian Galicia and pressed on to battle Germany, losing the Battle of Tannenberg (2630 August), on what came to be called the Eastern Front. Germany marched on France in late August but was stopped in the First Battle of the Marne (610 September) on what came to be called the Western Front; here trench warfare ensued until March 1918.

In the Middle East, the leadership of the Ottoman Empire was divided among those who desired neutrality, those who wanted to join the Allies, and those who preferred to join the Central powers. The last group, led by Minister of War Enver Paşa prevailed. The Ottoman cabinet signed a secret alliance with Germany on 2 August. The next week the Ottomans purchased the German cruisers Goeben and Breslau, replacing two Turkish ships (being built by Britain but confiscated by Britain at the outbreak of war). Renamed Sultan Selim Yavuz and Midilli, they shelled Sevastopol and Odessa, Russian cities on the Black Sea, 28 October, bringing the Ottoman Empire into the war; Russia declared war on the Ottomans 4 November; Britain and France declared war on them 5 November. Germany dominated Ottoman military actions, with General Otto Liman von Sanders directing the army and Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, the navy.

In November 1914, a British naval contingent bombarded the entrance to the Dardanelles, and in January 1915 the British organized to break through

the Turkish Straits (from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea at the Bosporus and Dardanelles). Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill convinced the war cabinet that an amphibious attack could accomplish this, thereby taking the Ottomans out of the war and opening a supply route to Russia. Britain's War Secretary Lord Kitchener sabotaged the plan by refusing to send the necessary land troops. Britain's navy unsuccessfully attacked in February and March; in April an Anglo-French army landed on the Gallipoli peninsula, where the Ottoman Turks caused heavy casualties to the Allies, which by then included Italian forces. The British-French-Italian forces almost broke through twice, but the lack of cooperation by the Russians at the Bosporus end of the Straits, faulty intelligence and, most of all, skillful tactics by the Turks and Germans led to a stalemate. The Allies withdrew from the Straits in January 1916.

Another area of major Middle Eastern hostilities was Egypt, under British protection since 18 December 1914. Khedive Abbas Hilmi II was deposed, and the British appointed Sharif Husayn ibn Ali to be sultan of Egypt. Cemal Paşa, Ottoman minister of marine, took over the Fourth Ottoman armythereby controlling Syria, including Palestine. He sent his forces to make a surprise attack on the Suez Canal in February 1915; they crossed the Negev desert without detection. The Turkish forces could not hold the eastern bank of the canal and retired to the Sinai desert, maintaining bases in Maʿan, Beersheba, and Gaza. Cemal continued to raid the Suez Canal by air, forcing the British to keep a large force there, but in the end the British prevailed. A second assault on the canal was delayed until the summer of 1916 and failed totally. The Turco-German forces were on the defensive there until the end of the war, although in March and April 1917 they withstood a heavy British attack at Gaza, and moved to the offensive in the Yilderim Operation commanded by General Erich von Falkenhayn. But the Turko-German forces were defeated by a combination of factors, including the troops of British General Edmund Allenby (commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force), failure of some of their transport, and sabotage.

Major battles were fought in Russia, where in late 1914 the Turks attempted to take Kars and Batum. In the battles of 1915 and 1916 the Russians took Erzerum, Van, Trabzon, and Erzinjan. They were aided by Armeniansrevolutionaries and irregulars. In 1916, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), commander of the Second Ottoman Army, joined the Third Army on the Caucasus front, but little was accomplished due to scarce ammunition, impossible conditions for transportation, and rampant disease. The two revolutions in Russia also affected the Caucasus front, as the Russian troops (except the Armenian and Georgian divisions) withdrew and went home to attend to domestic affairs in 1917. The Turks then occupied Kars, Ardahan, and Batum, but Georgian and German forces retook Batum. A Bolshevik-Armenian coup in Baku and the killing of ten thousand Turks there produced a Turkish drive to recapture the city in September 1918 and to kill many Armenians. At the end of the war, the Caucasus became the Allies' problem.

Iraq was the scene for the major hostilities of the Mesopotamia Campaign. British forces from India seized Basra before Turkey declared war. Traveling up to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Anglo-Indian forces under General Sir Charles Townshend took Kut al-Amara in 1915. In November, his army was defeated south of Baghdad and surrendered to the Sixth Turkish
Army at Kut al-Amara in April 1916. Halil Paşa erred in allowing the Anglo-Indian forces to remain in the south, for they reestablished their hold there, built a railroad, and under Britain's General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude, retook Kut al-Amara in March 1917. Baghdad fell immediately after, and the Anglo-Indian forces headed north to Mosul (on the west bank of the Tigris), which they failed to reach by the time of the Mudros Armistice (30 October 1918).

Two national groups within the Ottoman Empire openly aided the enemy during the war: the Arabs and the Armenians. The Armenians followed the orders of the head of the Armenian Orthodox Church (who lived in Yerevan in the Caucasus) that the Russian czar was the protector of all Armenians. Some Armenians rebelled; in the region of Van and Erzurum, Armenians openly battled the Turks proclaiming an Armenian government in Van, April 1915which touched off the Armenian deportations and the massive killing of Armenian civilians by the Turks in 1915/16.

Cemal Paşa's actions in Syriain arresting and hanging about thirty Arabs in Beirut and Damascus 1915/16, many from prominent families, as well as his refusal to share grain with the starving Lebanese in 1916pushed many Arabs to desire independence from Ottoman Turkey. This desire was furthered by the proclamation of Arab independence by Sharif Husayn ibn Ali of the Hijaz in June 1916. Husayn's action was part of the outcome of the secret Husayn-McMahon Correspondence.

Another secret negotiation over the division of the Arab Middle East was the Sykes-Picot Agreement between France, Britain, and Russia. An open negotiation between the Zionists and the British had led to the issuance of the November 1917 pro-Zionist Balfour Declaration, concerning a "Jewish national home" in Palestine.

The failure of the German-Turkish campaigns led to the buildup of British troops in Egypt and their move into Palestine. General Allenby led his Egyptian Expeditionary Forces west of the Jordan river, and Jerusalem fell to them in December 1917. Joined by French military detachments, he moved north to take Lebanon, while Hijazi forces, aided by Colonel T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Colonel C. C. Wilson, and Sir Reginald Wingate, paralleled Allenby's actions east of the Jordan River. Damascus fell in October 1918and although Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and the Seventh Turkish Army held Aleppo, the armistice at Mudros ended all fighting, 30 October 1918.

Four years of war had devastated Ottoman Turkey, and the old order died. A new period for the Middle East began with the peace treaties, the rise to power in Turkey of Mustafa Kemal, the fall of empires, and the creation of new nation-states and spheres of influence.

see also balfour declaration (1917); husaynmcmahon correspondence (19151916); sykespicot agreement (1916).


Barker, A. J. The Bastard War: The Mesopotamian Campaign of 19141918. New York: Dial Press, 1967.

Kedourie, Elie. England and the Middle East: The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire, 19141921. Hassocks, U.K.: Harvester Press, 1978.

Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 3d edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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