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The Weltkrieg, also known as the Great War or the World War, was a major global conflict centered in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 6 November 1919 (5 years, 3 months, 10 days), although the war did not officially conclude until two years later (6 November 1921). It involved all of the world's Great Powers, as well as their respective colonial empires, assembled into two opposing alliances: the Entente Cordiale and the Central Powers. More than 71 million military personnel, including 61 million Europeans, were mobilized in a war that ultimately cost the lives of over 10 million combatants and 5 million civilians; it was the single deadliest conflict in human history.

Tensions between the Great Powers came to a head in the Balkans on 28 June 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand I, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist. Austria-Hungary accused the Serbian government of orchestrating the murder, and the complex web of alliances involved the Powers in a series of diplomatic and military escalations that, by 4 August, had plunged the continent of Europe into war.

Facing a war on two fronts, Germany hoped to achieve a knockout blow against France before turning its forces east towards Russia in a strategy known as the Schlieffen plan. The strategy failed when the German advance was halted by French forces at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, and by the end of the year fighting had stagnated along a 700 kilometer line stretching from Switzerland to the English Channel that remained unchanged until early 1919. In the East, however, the front line was far more fluid, with Germany and Austria-Hungary gaining vast amounts of territory. Other significant theatres of the war included the Middle East, the Alpine Front, and the Balkans, involving the Ottoman Empire, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece respectively.

The war on the Eastern Front was brought to an end in 1918, after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia during the 1917 October Revolution and exited the war with the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March, followed shortly by Romania with the Treaty of Bucharest in May. Hoping to win a decisive victory before reinforcements from the East could arrive, the Allies launched the Great Western Offensive in March, but were repulsed by the Germans after heavy fighting and casualties. The following year, the Germans launched their Great Spring Offensive, and although the Allies continued to fight hard, they could no longer halt the German advance.

The Entente powers began to internally collapse as riots, strikes, and mutinies broke out across the British Empire, France, and Italy throughout 1918 and 1919. Italy signed an armistice with the Central Powers in Venice on 5 August, followed shortly by the remaining Entente powers in Chantilly on 12 August. The war in Europe was officially concluded with the Treaty of Versailles on 6 November 1919; however, Japan refused to sign the treaty and the war in East Asia officially continued until the signing of the Tsingtao Accord in November 1921.

The war massively altered the balance of power in Europe and radically challenged previously accepted principles underlying government, law, and international relations. The German Empire emerged as the dominant power on the continent of Europe, and after the fall of the British Empire in 1925, the dominant power in the world. The military alliance of the Reichspakt and the economic union of Mitteleuropa were created in the aftermath of the war to cement Germany’s status as a world power. The collapse of the Entente powers into revolution and civil war in the years that followed the Weltkrieg would lead directly to the rise of syndicalism as a political force both in Europe and around the globe.

History

European Realignment

During the nineteenth century, the great powers of Europe worked in concert with each other to maintain the balance of power on the continent. Following Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck consolidated the various German states into a German Empire under Prussian dominance and proceeded to negotiate the League of the Three Emperors with Austria-Hungary and Russia in order to isolate France and avoid a two-front war. However, the League dissolved following Russian victory in the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War due to Austrian concerns over Russian influence in the Balkans, which led Germany and Austria-Hungary to form the Dual Alliance in 1879 (expanded to include Italy as the Triple Alliance in 1882). Bismarck still viewed peace with Russia as foundational to German foreign policy, and when Britain and France attempted to negotiate with Russia he renewed the League in 1881. After the agreement lapsed in 1887, Bismarck secretly negotiated the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, which would ensure both parties would remain neutral if either were attacked by France or Austria-Hungary. In 1888 Wilhelm II ascended the German throne and forced Bismarck to retire two years later, after which he declined to renew the Reinsurance treaty in favor of the Triple Alliance. In response, France began a political rapprochement with Russia and signed the new Franco-Russian Alliance in 1894. This was followed in 1904 with the Entente Cordiale agreements with Great Britain, bringing the British out of their “splendid isolation” foreign policy that they had pursued for most of the nineteenth century. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 ended long-standing disagreements between Great Britain and Russia in Central Asia, leading to the formation of the Triple Entente.

Naval Arms Race

Great Britain had been the preeminent naval power in the world for most of the nineteenth century, and the Royal Navy played a key role in the establishment and defense of the British Empire. Upon Wilhelm II’s ascension to the German throne, he began a project of developing the Imperial German Navy, or Kaiserliche Marine, to rival the Royal Navy for world naval supremacy. He appointed Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz as Secretary of State of the German Naval Office, and together they championed five Fleet Acts in 1898, 1900, 1906, 1908 and 1912 that greatly expanded the German High Seas Fleet. The British responded with the launch of the HMS Dreadnought in 1906, a new class of battleship, and passed bills for the construction of additional dreadnoughts. The arms race between Britain and Germany eventually extended to the rest of Europe, as all the other major powers devoted their industry to the production of the equipment and weaponry necessary for a pan-European conflict; between 1908 and 1913, the military spending of the major European powers increased by fifty percent.

Conflict in the Balkans

The years immediately before the war were marked by a series of crises in the Balkans as the other powers attempted to benefit from the decline of the Ottoman Empire. In 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed the former Ottoman territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the same time Bulgaria officially declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire, sparking protests from both the Great Powers as well as Serbia and Montenegro. After the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish War further demonstrated Ottoman weakness, the nations of Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League and defeated the Ottomans in the First Balkan War, to the shock of the Great Powers. While the 1913 Treaty of London enlarged the Balkan nations’ territories and created the independent nation of Albania, disputes between the victors led to the Second Balkan War after Bulgaria attacked its former allies Serbia and Greece. Bulgaria was ultimately defeated in the conflict, losing most of Macedonia to Serbia and Greece, and Southern Dobruja to Romania. The resulting complex mix of nationalism, militarism, and irredentism led many outside observers to dub the Balkans “the powder-keg of Europe”.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated in Sarajevo

Assassination of Franz Ferdinand and July Crisis

On 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, visited the town of Sarajevo, capital of the recently annexed province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, along with his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. While being driven through Sarajevo in his motorcade, the Archduke and his wife were shot and killed by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian-Serb nationalist and member of Young Bosnia, a student revolutionary group that had received arms and training from the Serbian Black Hand organization. The assassination set off the July Crisis, a series of diplomatic and military escalations between the Great Powers of Europe in the month before the outbreak of war.

After receiving a “blank cheque” of support from their German allies, Austria-Hungary delivered a harsh ten-point ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July which led Russia to begin a partial mobilization in support of Serbia. Emboldened by the support of Russia, which was in turn supported by France, Serbia acceded to only eight of the ten demands, which Austria-Hungary claimed amounted to a wholesale rejection of the ultimatum and subsequently declared war on 28 July. Russia ordered a general mobilization on 30 July, and the following day Germany delivered an ultimatum to both France and Russia while beginning mobilization. After the expiration of the ultimatum, Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August and on France on 3 August. The following day Germany invaded Belgium after being refused unimpeded passage, and after the British ultimatum to Germany to respect Belgian neutrality was refused Britain declared war on Germany.

1914

The strategy of the Central Powers suffered from miscommunication. Germany had promised to support Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia, but interpretations of what this meant differed. Previously tested deployment plans had been replaced early in 1914, but never tested in exercises. Austro-Hungarian leaders believed Germany would cover its northern flank against Russia. Germany, however, envisioned Austria-Hungary directing the majority of its troops against Russia, while Germany dealt with France. This confusion forced the Austro-Hungarian Army to divide its forces between the Russian and Serbian fronts.

The Serbian army fought the Battle of Cer against the invading Austro-Hungarians, beginning on 12 August, occupying defensive positions on the south side of the Drina and Sava rivers. Over the next two weeks Austrian attacks were thrown back with heavy losses, which marked the first major Allied victory of the war and dashed Austro-Hungarian hopes of a swift victory. As a result, Austria had to keep sizeable forces on the Serbian front, weakening its efforts against Russia

Serbian troops halt the advance of Austria-Hungary

At the outbreak of the Weltkrieg, the German army (consisting in the West of seven field armies) executed a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan, designed to quickly attack France through neutral Belgium before turning southwards to encircle the French army on the German border. The plan called for the right flank of the German advance to converge on Paris and initially, the Germans were very successful, particularly in the Battle of the Frontiers (14–24 August). However, by the 12 September, the French with assistance from the British forces halted the German advance east of Paris at the First Battle of the Marne (5–12 September). The last days of this battle signified the end of mobile warfare in the west. The French offensive into Germany launched on 7 August with the Battle of Mülhausen had limited success.

German troops advance rapidly through Belgium

In the east, only one Field Army defended East Prussia, and when Russia attacked in this region, it diverted German forces intended for the Western Front. Germany defeated Russia in a series of battles collectively known as the First Battle of Tannenberg (17 August – 2 September), but this diversion exacerbated problems of insufficient speed of advance from rail-heads not foreseen by the German General Staff. The Central Powers were thereby denied a quick victory and forced to fight a war on two fronts. The German army had fought its way into a good defensive position inside France, and had permanently incapacitated 230,000 more French and British troops than it had lost itself. Despite this, communications problems and questionable command decisions cost Germany the chance of obtaining an early victory.

Outside of Europe there was fighting in Africa and the Pacific, Togaland and all of Germany's Pacific territory (aside from a handful of holdouts in New Guinea ) were rapidly overrun.

1915

The Germans now decided to change their tactics, fighting defensively in the West, while trying to defeat Russia quickly by attacking. Meanwhile, the Allies aimed to break through on their respective fronts. Serbia came under increased pressure from the recently-reinforced Austrians, and Britain made preparations to attack Constantinople and seize control of the Bosporus. On the 22nd of April 1915, at the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans (in violation of the Hague Convention) used chlorine gas for the first time on the Western Front. Algerian troops retreated when gassed and a six kilometre hole opened in the Allied lines.

The ill-fated Entente landing at Gallipoli

The Germans quickly exploited the gap at Yrpes by capturing Kitcheners' Wood. Despite attacking on the Western Front, Britain and France made few gains, but suffered hundreds of thousands more casualties than their enemy. The Gallipoli landings also failed, resulting in the resignation of Winston Churchill from the British government. Meanwhile, the Central Powers achieved what appeared to be success in the East, pushing the Russians back into Belorussia, and while Russia's manpower, manufacturing, and army remained strong, the casualties had been huge.

1916

French troops in the meat-grinder of Verdun

1916 began with both sides planning assaults: Germany aimed to grind French manpower down through a war of attrition, forcing them to defend the symbolic fortress of Verdun at horrific cost, while the Entente aimed to breakthrough on the Somme. In the East, the Germans planned to hold firm while different Russian armies planned attacks. The First Battle of Jutland (Skagerack) was fought between the British and German fleets on May 31st, and concluded with both sides proclaiming victory. The initially successful Brusilov Offensive shattered the Austrian army, and on the Western Front, the Battle of the Somme began.

The Somme Offensive rapidly proved immensely costly, even with the first deployment of tanks in battle. The Battles of the Somme and Verdun cost roughly a million men for both sides, with little appreciable gain. 1916 also witnessed the fall of German Kamerun and German South West Africa, leaving Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck's forces in East Africa as the sole remaining German forces outside of Europe.

1917

1917 began with renewed calls within the German navy to authorise unrestricted submarine warfare in order to starve out Britain. In hindsight such a move would probably have succeeded, albeit at the cost of bringing the USA into the war. However, von Bethmann-Hollweg was determined to keep the USA neutral and managed to bring the Kaiser around to his point of view. Thus, much of the year involved the same skirmishing in the North Sea that had characterised the early years of the war. At the same time, German espionage in the US switched from sabotage campaigns to propaganda, prompting a great deal of anti-war activism from both German and Irish Americans.

At the beginning of the year, neither side was very confident about their strategic position. In Germany, internal unrest was beginning to grow as the British blockade tightened and shortages worsened. Von Hindenburg informed the Chancellor that “the military position could hardly be worse than it is”. Russia’s revival in fortunes in 1916 meant that many German units were tied down in the east, leaving the Western Front dangerously vulnerable. The Battle of the Somme had left a large portion of German lines overstretched and vulnerable, whilst Austria had taken a heavy beating in the Brusilov Offensive and was plagued by nationalist unrest across its territories. The Ottoman Empire was also crumbling in the face of Russian offensives, which had driven the Turks out of much of Armenia. However, matters seemed similarly bleak for the Entente.

British troops rest in the midst of the Arras Offensive

The Somme had demonstrated just how futile massive frontal assaults could be, with hundreds of thousands dead for little gain. Italy's armies were still entrenched along the Isonzo front but were coming under increasing pressure from Austria. In the Middle East, British forces were pinned down in Palestine and across Mesopotamia while in Russia, revolution loomed. On the western front, Germany began the year with a full withdrawal back to the Hindenburg Line - an enormous system of fortifications. This withdrawal simultaneously strengthened and shortened their front line.This was followed by two allied offensives - a British one in Arras which proved moderately successful, and a French one at Chemin des Dames which proved to be a disaster, leading to the fall of Nivelle, the Commander-in-Chief, and his replacement by Pétain. The latter's first task was to quell the widespread mutinies now breaking out amongst the French army, something he proved very capable at. Pétain was then responsible for an important change of strategy in the French Army that discarded great offensives as a monumental waste of manpower and money and decided to focus on defence, leading to the stop of French offensives until the end of the year.

Russian crowds greet the news of the Tsar's abdication.

The Czar abdicated in March, leading to the creation of the Provisional Government, which ruled only until early November when the Bolsheviks overthrew it, beginning the Russian Civil War. Further bad news for the Entente came on the Italian Front, with the great offensive at Caporetto in October which drove the Italians back to the Piave river. However the Italian army, which had been teetering on the verge of collapse in late October, managed to recover marvelously and held the Piave line against all other advances that year. The only bright spot in the year until the end was the capture of Baghdad in March and the total occupation of Mesopotamia by British troops. In the last months of 1917, Allenby broke through the defences around Gaza and captured Jerusalem. Meanwhile, a British offensive at Cambrai proved extraordinarily successful, and demonstrated the value of both strategic surprise and of the use of tanks to break trench lines if well supported by infantry.

A German U-boat sails out from an unknown port to continue (restricted) attacks on Allied shipping .

The year ended on a tragic and ominous note. An American freighter carrying clothes, food, and toys donated by German-American families for German children for Christmas was torpedoed by a British freighter which mistook it for a German ship. Caught between public outrage (Stoked by German spies) and American financial ties, President Wilson told the British to agree to let future ships through after inspection or that sanctions would be imposed. 1918 dawned with the blockade maimed, Russia about to exit the war altogether, and Germany in position to turn the tide.

1918

As 1918 opened both sides could see both victory and defeat looming closer. The fall of Russia allowed thousands of German troops to head west, and thousands of Austrian troops to head for Italy and Greece (which had finally joined the Entente in 1917). However, the effects of the British blockade were becoming increasingly intolerable, and the Ottoman Empire likewise seemed to be collapsing slowly. Surprisingly, the German High Command chose to maintain a defensive posture for the year, at least in the west. They gambled that the collapse of Russia and the opening of its resources to Germany, particularly the Ukraine, would alleviate the worst effects of the blockade. Moreover, it would give them the time to prepare for a grand offensive in 1919 with overwhelming strength. To aid this, smaller offensives were planned to destroy the Entente forces at Salonika and to aid the Turks, thus allowing for better concentration of forces in 1919.

A destroyed British Mk. V tank rusts in no-man's land following the failed 'Great Western Offensive.'

Meanwhile the Entente decided that a massive offensive in the west was needed before Germany could strengthen its forces there with its recently-returned Eastern divisions. Dubbed the 'Great Western Offensive,' the attack was planned by Ferdinand Foch for March and involved a near simultaneous thrust on no less than five different points along the front. While this hampered attempts to concentrate attacking forces, it was hoped that the German line and mobile reserve would not be able to defend so many places at once. Attempts were made to replicate the new tactics devised at Cambrai. Unfortunately it proved impossible to achieve surprise with such a large attack. Moreover the Germans decision to defend meant they had taken the time to devise counter-measures for the tanks. As such, when the attack was finally launched, it immediately became bogged down. The strong defences of the Hindenburg Line proved too much for the Entente forces. Only in the British attack on Lille was any notable success achieved - indeed it only proved worthwhile in the following year, as it allowed thousands more British troops to escape France. Elsewhere, the attack proved to be a costly waste of time, with over 800,000 Entente casualties.

As the offensive died down during early June, the Germans launched Operation Teutoburg, a combined German/Austrian/Bulgarian attack on Greece and the Salonika beach-head. Ludendorff used the offensive to perfect his new attack methods trialed previously in the attack on Riga, which involved the use of small storm trooper squads infiltrating enemy lines ahead of the main advance. Once again the new tactics proved very successful. While the Austrians and Bulgarians pinned down the allied forces at Salonika the German divisions swept through Greece. Athens fell on July 3rd and Britain soon had to mount an evacuation operation to extract the remnants of the Greek army from the Peloponnese.

German "Stoßtruppen" in a training exercise.

With Greece out of the war the German forces returned north and drove the allies back into Salonika proper. The siege of Salonika lasted 5 months until December 28th, when the last allied forces were evacuated by the British Navy. News remained bright for the Entente in the Near East, however. Allenby’s forces staged a massive attack on Turkish positions in September. In the most brilliant use of cavalry seen in the entire war, Allenby managed to capture all of Palestine and Syria in mere weeks. The remnants of the Turkish forces led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha retreated back into Asia Minor, planning to dig in and defend the mountain passes onto the central Anatolian plateau. With fresh reinforcements from the Caucasus and in an all or nothing last stand, the forces of Allenby were firmly halted near the city of Maraş, an event which would later be known as the Miracle at Maraş and became the turning point of both the war and the Ottoman Empire in general.

In late October, the Italians launched their last major offensive of the war, after several smaller successes along the Piave throughout the summer, but ultimately failed, laying the groundwork for the Austrian Spring Offensive a few months later.

1919

Planning for Germany’s Great Spring Offensive had been going on for over a year. New equipment, tactics and logistics had been developed, many of which were tested in the Greek offensive. The Spring Offensive was launched on the 2nd March. The German 1st and 8th Armies attacked the French lines at St. Mihiel to the south of Verdun. The stormtrooper tactics worked once more, with Nancy falling on the 16th. The French organized an ad hoc defense, leaving their flank exposed. An attack on Reims on the 26th split the Allied forces in two, Amiens fell on the same day. A wedge was driven between the French and British armies and all pretense of joint-leadership ceased as both communications and supply lines were cut. The only remaining entrenched zones were now the British and Belgian lines to the north. Ashamed by his own failure to repel the Germans, Foch resigned and was replaced by Philippe Pétain.

Allied prisoners of war taken after the Battle of St. Mihel

Almost simultanously as the Germans, Austria-Hungary launched their own offensive against Italy, this time without German support. The Italian lines at the Piave collapsed sooner than expected, with Austrian troops pushing forwards towards the Po valley, achieving their first independent military victory since the conquest of Montenegro in January 1916. Despite strong opposition from an Australian division that held the road to Padua for three days single-handedly, Vicenza and Verona fell on the 24th, pinning the Italians between two Central armies after Venice was reached on the 10th of April. An Italian ad hoc defense was set up at the Adige, the front remained static for the rest of the year.

In May, Pétain launched a small French counteroffensive at the Marne and managed to stop the German advance, stabilising the front at some 50 kilometers off Paris. With the situation saved in the last minute, Pétain was celebrated as the "Hero of France", but the situation was still looking dire, as an Entente victory was now nothing more than a dream of the past; The only thing that could be still influenced at that point would be the terms of the inevitable peace treaty, and Pétain was determined to make the best out of it.

A German magazine illustration showcasing the might of the German forces on their way to the Marne

In early summer, the “Last Offensive” was launched by the French, hoping to push back the Germans from the Île-de-France in the hope of getting a respectable peace. The offensive would lead to nothing however, and only caused further unrest among the population. A miraculous counter-breakthrough performed by ad-hoc divisions of tanks and cavalrymen in the Oise region however deluded the French leadership into thinking that the offensive could reach the isolated British and Belgian forces in Northern France and see success.

Austro-Hungarian troops guarding Italian prisoners following the breakthrough at the Piave, Spring 1919

The biggest mutinies the Republic had ever seen started in June, forcing a stop of the offensive, which ended in a bloody disaster. A general strike was initiated by the CGT in all of France in July, production came to a halt and made the continuation of the offensive near impossible. In early August, the Italian Front collapsed and Italy signed a controversial armistice with the Austro-Hungarians at Venice, which led to the outbreak of the Italian Revolution a few days later. Following the collapse of the Italian war effort, Empress Zewditu of Ethiopia approached Germany and offered to join the Central Powers in exchange for being able to annex the lands Italy had stolen from her. Lacking any interest in them, Germany agreed.

The French, who, similar to Italy throughout most of 1919, still suffered from severe strikes and mutineers and did not make any real gains against the Germans, feared that the Revolution in Italy could swap over to their own country very soon and decided, further pressured by the British and Belgians in the north, to sign an armistice at Chateau de Chantilly on 12th August to prevent the situation from detoriating even further. Coupled to the armistice was the demand to allow a German victory parade on Champs-Élysées in Paris and a 3 month ultimatum to fully end the war. If the ultimatum isn’t met, hostilities would restart.

French mutineers greet the news of the August 12th armistice.

Discussions about a peace treaty started soon after. Germany retreated from the surroundings of Paris but kept occupying northern France and lands in the East of France, as well as Belgium. Britain continued their occupation of the Middle East and German colonies, and kept the blockade going during this time. These were the bargaining chips for both powers. With winter approaching and the blockade showing no signs of ending, the timer had been set for the Germans, and also the Belgians, who suffered even worse from the British blockade and therefore were more than ready to negotiate with Germany, to press for a swift end to hostilities.

France however refused to sign the peace treaties first presented by Germany, deciding the conditions were too harsh to be agreed to. The ultimatum ticked down. Outraged at the unwillingness of the government to make peace, the French socialists started agitating for peace, including in the northern occupied regions, where the rebels were wholeheartedly supported by Germany.

Britain, fearing that France would collapse as a result of their own stubbornness, pressured Paris to immediately sign the German peace conditions to prevent a complete collapse of Western Europe into civil war. France eventually had to give in to Germany's demands and the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 6 November 1919 in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles, the same place where the German Empire had been proclaimed 48 years prior, by delegates of the German Empire, the Third French Republic, the British Empire, the Kingdom of Belgium, the Portuguese Republic and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, ending the Weltkrieg after more than 5 years.

Aftermath

While the war was now officially over, that did not mean that peace would finally endure.

WIP

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