World War One (WW1) began in a fog of self-delusion. The war was intended as a clash of Empires that would re-distribute international power whilst leaving the world much as it had been for the past century. In reality, millions of people were killed, vast wealth was consumed, and social institutions and even entire countries were swept away. The war touched most geographical regions of the world, allowing an otherwise European-centred war to be termed as a World War.
WW1 is often said to be triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary by Serbian backed Bosnian insurgents. This assassination in a town that few people outside the Balkans had probably known even existed (Sarajervo), triggered a change reaction of events. Austro-Hungary, incensed that Serbia was involved, declared war on its small neighbour determined to wipe it off the map. Imperial Russia, long anxious about the balance of power in the Balkans and keen to be perceived as the leader of the ‘pan-Slavic’ world, declared war on Austro-Hungary. Germany, Austro-Hungary’s ally, declared war on Imperial Russia in accordance with established treaties. France, Germany’s enemy and Russian’s ally, declared war on Germany.
In accordance with pre-war planning, each of the major powers attempted to invade its major neighbour. Austro-Hungary invaded Serbia (as part of its original war objectives). Russia planned to invade Germany from the east, whilst France planned to invade Germany from the west. Each country assumed that its mobilisation plans, and eventual military success in the field, would vindicate its pre-war military planning. For example, Germany’s geographical location in central Europe compelled it to consider the consequences of a ‘two front’ war against France and Russia. Knowing that a successful two front war was unlikely, Germany’s ‘Schlieffen Plan’ required it to invade and overwhelm France before defeating a slower mobilising Russia. In practice, this plan came apart in several ways. The plan required the German northern flank to invade neutral Belgium and then turn south along the North Sea coast into France. Meanwhile, the southern flank would strike westwards to Paris – and then the entire German line of advance stretching from Paris to the North Sea would pivot west and south on Paris and sweep all opposing before it. Unexpectedly for Germany, Britain decided to honour its commitments under the 1839 Treaty of London and protect Belgium’s independence by military force. Strong French and British resistance in northern France, combined with an unexpectedly rapid Russian mobilisation on the Eastern front, compelled the German field commander to shorten the line of his advance – the allies counter-attacked, triggering the ‘race to the sea’. In a series of battles, the opposing armies attempted to rush troops to strengthen all points of the front line while looking for a weakness in the opposing lines. Opposing forces in each locality dug defensive trenches during these manoeuvres, progressively connecting their trenches to those trenches being dug in neighbouring areas. By the end of 1914, trenches stretched from Switzerland in the south-east, northwards through northern France and Belgium until they reached the North Sea. Stalemate was reached.
Meanwhile events had moved swiftly on other fronts. In the east, Russia had mobilised more quickly than Germany had expected. While this mobilisation contributed to the failure of the French invasion, the local German field commander inflicted a crushing defeat on the invading Russian armies in the area of the Tannenberg Lakes of eastern Prussia. In the south, Austro-Hungary overwhelmed Serbia. While Italy, the third member of the Central Powers alliance, chose to remain neutral. In 1915 it repudiated its alliances altogether and entered the war on the side of the Allies.
Unable to gain the necessary advantage in Western Europe, the opposing powers sought to expand the geographical reach of the war. Germany held territories and economic interests in Africa, China and the Pacific. Though Germany had come late to the international division of the world by the European powers, it still had a respectable sized international empire. Further, it stationed troops and warships to protect its territories that had to be neutralised and prevented from threatening Allied interests. Despite initial Allied expectations, the German defenders of these territories did not give up easily. In Africa, it was well into 1916 before substantial German territory in Africa was under Allied control. Nevertheless, continuing German resistance tied down hundreds of thousands of Allied personnel. In the Pacific, the small German-held islands were captured relatively quickly. However, the German garrison in Shanghai and the ships of the German African and Asian squadrons resisted fiercely before being overwhelmed.
In the Mediterranean, Germany persuaded Turkey to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers. In response, Britain and France sought ways to contain and overwhelm Turkey. After the failure of the naval and later amphibious campaigns in the Dardanelles during 1915, the Allied strategy turned to strangulation. In the south, Allied forces drove northwards from Egypt into Palestine. In the east, British and Indian forces attempted to invade Turkey from India. However, on each of these fronts, progress was slow in the face of enormous logistical difficulties and determined Turkish resistance.
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