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READ: The Course of the First World War

The First World War began with plans for rapid victories. It degenerated into a stalemate of mud and blood that lasted four long years.

The Course of the First World War

By Trevor R. Getz
The First World War began with plans for rapid victories. It degenerated into a stalemate of mud and blood that lasted four long years.

An unimagined tragedy

The First World War (1914–1918) was an unimagined tragedy. Very few people in Europe, or around the world, really understood how industrialization would change warfare. Only the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) a decade earlier offered any glimpse of what mechanized weapons could do to both sides. Most of the main combatants in the First World War—Britain, France, Germany, Austro-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and later Italy and the United States—were entering a new and much deadlier battleground.

War plans

More than any previous conflict, the First World War was a war for which each country thought they were well prepared. Sure, ancient and medieval generals planned the movement of their armies before battle, but usually only once wars began. The First World War had been planned out and war-gamed by generals for decades prior in some countries. Most military leaders grasped that the pace of warfare had changed, and that railroads were a game-changer that would make everything happen faster. This meant that in order to get an advantage, or to get anywhere first, plans had to be in place and had to be carefully followed.
European alliances, 1914. From the West Point US Military Academy. Fair use.
The most important plan in this war was the Schlieffen Plan, a German conception first proposed in 1891. It was based on the belief that there would be a war between Germany on the one hand and both Russia and France on the other. The planners could see that fighting both opponents at once, on two sides of Germany, was really risky. But they also saw that France, with its shorter distances and more modern railways, could get an army to Germany before Russia could. Vast, under-industrialized Russia would take time to mobilize. So, the Germans devised a plan to rapidly invade France, knock them out of the war first, and then turn around and fight Russia. The only problem was that the fastest way to knock out France was to go through Belgium, and Britain had promised to protect Belgium. But German planners hoped the British wouldn’t really come in to defend this tiny country.
The Schlieffen Plan went into operation almost immediately when the war began. The conflict started, of course, as a result of a crisis following Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. This led to the Austro-Hungarian Empire declaring war on Serbia, and Russia coming in on Serbia’s side. Germany had to join their Austro-Hungarian allies in the war against Russia and, just as the Schlieffen Plan predicted, France came in on the side of their Russian allies.

From mobility to trenches on the western front

The speed of mobilization meant that the first big battles of the war would be fought in the west, where the German army followed the Schlieffen Plan and invaded Belgium and France. On August 14, battles erupted along the Franco-German frontier. The French were pushed back as the well-designed Schlieffen Plan went into effect. Unfortunately for the Germans, the decision to invade Belgium did bring Britain into the war, and British forces joined the French, putting into effect the alliance known as the Triple Entente1. All along the Western Front, armies made up of British, Belgian, and French soldiers were slowly pushed back towards the French capital of Paris. Too slowly, it turns out. French reinforcements were rushed to the front and, by September 5, were pushing back in a vast counterattack known as the Battle of the Marne.
Schlieffen Plan (in red) and the French counter-attack (in blue) of 1914. From the US Military Academy, public domain.
As the Germans retreated from around Paris, however, the nature of the conflict began to change. It became clear that defenders had a big advantage over attackers, especially when they were entrenched, meaning dug into the ground. Modern weapons, especially machine guns, could put out vast amounts of bullets very quickly. Attacking—especially across open ground—now meant increased casualties for the attackers. The only way to overcome a well-placed defense was with artillery firing huge shells. But defenders who dug into the ground, building trenches, were safer against artillery. Slowly the whole battlefront in the west became a series of trenches leading from Switzerland to the sea.

The war beyond the Western Front

While the Western Front was becoming bogged down, the mighty Russian Empire finally got its armies to the front lines. At first, the huge Russian armies were pretty effective against the Austro-Hungarian forces. Together with their allies in Serbia, they defeated the Austro-Hungarians in several small battles. However, the two Russian armies facing the Germans were divided in part because of bad communications and in part because their generals hated each other. At the end of August 1914, one army was surrounded by German forces at Tannenberg and forced to surrender. The Russians had been dealt a huge blow, but they remained in the war.
Meanwhile, new countries had joined the war. Two of the most important were the Ottoman Empire and Italy. The Ottomans entered the war on the German and Austro-Hungarian side, forming the Central Powers. They hoped that they could reclaim territory lost to Russia in previous wars. However, their first attacks into Russia—via the Caucasus Mountains—were not successful, and they soon found themselves embroiled in battles against British forces in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Italy, similarly, entered the war hoping to win back territory—land that the Austro-Hungarian Empire claimed. They, too, found their first attacks unsuccessful and soon bogged down into a slow, difficult war in the Alps mountains.
Meanwhile, the war was expanding far beyond Europe. Japan entered the conflict on the side of its ally, Great Britain, within the first week of the war. Their modern navy quickly conquered German colonies in China (in Qingdao, or Tsingtao) and the Pacific (Mariana, Caroline, and Marshall Islands). In Africa, meanwhile, the German colonies were also under attack. British and French forces quickly conquered German Togo and Cameroon in West Africa, while British South African forces occupied German South-West Africa in 1915. The German armies in East Africa held out until the end of the war. In almost all cases, most of the fighting was actually done by African soldiers.

Attempting to break the stalemate

By the middle of 1915, the war was stuck in a vast quagmire. In most places, modern weapons meant that there could be little movement, and the enormousness of the armies and total mobilization of economies meant that it was difficult to turn even a victorious battle into a major event.
Along the Western Front, a series of small attacks inevitably ended in terrible failure, and the armies settled down in exhaustion. The addition of gas weapons made movement even more difficult, and the armies built better and better bunkers and defenses to stop attackers. One strategy was to make the attacks even bigger. The result was just more casualties. Beginning in February 1916, for example, the Germans tried to grind the whole French army to death by attacking the fortified line at Verdun. They wanted a long battle, forcing the French to send unit after unit replacing defeated soldiers. In the end, the French lost about 400,000 to death or injury in this battle, and the Germans about 350,000. In July 1916, a largely British force tried to break the German lines at the Battle of the Somme. They suffered more than half a million casualties, including 150,000 dead. German losses were similar.
Map of the Western Front, 1916, showing the location of the Battles of Verdun and the Somme, and others. Note how little ground was gained in these dreadful battles. Public domain.
There were also attempts to provoke a naval battle that could shift the balance of the war. The German fleet sailed out to challenge the British Home Fleet at the end of May 1916. The resulting Battle of Jutland didn’t resolve anything. Both fleets remained in existence, even though the German fleet didn’t sail out again during the war.
Another strategy for breaking the stalemate was to knock one opponent out of the war. The British, for example, thought they could break down the Ottoman Empire by landing near and occupying the capital of Constantinople (later Istanbul). They sent a force—mainly Australian and New Zealand troops—to land at a place called Gallipoli, along the coast near Constantinople. This attack also failed, and left 250,000 casualties on either side.
British map from the First World War showing the location of the Gallipoli campaign and the gateway to Constantinople (today Istanbul). Public domain.
Both sides also tried to damage each other decisively through economic means. The British fleet tried to stop any goods from going into Germany, and largely succeeded, although only very slowly. The Germans tried to use U-boats (submarines) to strangle the British economy. This strategy was effective for a while, but convoys and new technology slowly diminished the kill rate of the U-boats.

Russia and the Americans

Eventually, the Central Powers did manage to knock one opponent out, perhaps unwittingly. Russian armies had been suffering some bad defeats throughout 1916, and the Russian economy was in shambles because of the war. This helped to create the conditions for the Russian Revolution. At first, the revolutionary government stayed in the war on the side of the Triple Entente, but after the communist Bolsheviks took power, they bowed out.
This should have radically transformed the conflict to the benefit of Germany and its allies. However, just as the Russians were leaving, the United States was entering the conflict. The main cause was German unrestricted submarine warfare, which affected American shipping, although German attempts to win Mexican allies and other issues also helped convince the United States to declare war. American troops began to arrive in the summer of 1917. The American troops were inexperienced, but given the exhaustion of every other army in the war they injected a needed morale boost in their British, French, and Belgian allies.
By late 1918, then, things were beginning to look bad for the Central Powers. Their armies were in retreat almost everywhere. Britain and local allies pushed the Ottoman forces out of Mesopotamia and Arabia in September. The Austro-Hungarians were defeated by the Italians in an important battle in June, and within a few months many of their subject peoples—Croats, Slovenes, Serbs, Poles—were declaring independence. German soldiers held on as best they could, but faced terrible economic conditions at home as the British blockade really tightened. In late October, parts of the navy began to revolt, and a new government came to power, determined to end the war. On November 11, an armistice was signed between the victorious Triple Entente and their allies on the one hand, and Germany on the other.


A single article, in 1800 words or so, tells the history of the First World War like a rapid whirlwind. In fact, it was a terrible four-year slog of mud and death. All of the plans for quick victories looked like a bad joke from the viewpoint of November 1918. Everyone hoped it would be “the war to end all wars.” Of course, it was not.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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