It has been more than 100 years since the First World War ended, a triumph still celebrated across Europe every year. Countries once cut up into systems of trenches and no-man’s land join together to commemorate the lives lost during “the war to end all wars”. Such were the horrors carried out during the conflict, that Australian historian Paul Ham would later write that, even for the victors, the war “destroyed our civilization”. This first conflict between industrialized, major nations saw ten million soldiers dead and at least 21 million mutilated.
Not only did the war dramatically change the shape of society at the time, but its impact also continues to resonate through the 21st century. The war led to the carving up of the Middle East into a formulation we would now recognize and that led to continuous conflict and fighting in the region. The Great War changed the present as it would unalterably change the future, but how it broke out remains a point of contention even after all these years of peaceful co-existence between the warring powers. So what are the disputed facts? And are we any closer to knowing which are true?
How did WWI start?
The simplest answer is that the immediate cause was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the archduke of Austria-Hungary. His death at the hands of Gavrilo Princip – a Serbian nationalist with ties to the secretive military group known as the Black Hand – propelled the major European military powers towards war. The events that led up to the assassination are significantly more complicated, but most scholars agree that the gradual emergence of a group of alliances between major powers was partly to blame for the descent into war.
By 1914, those alliances resulted in the six major powers of Europe coalescing into two broad groups: Britain, France and Russia formed the Triple Entente, while Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy comprised the Triple Alliance.
As these countries came to each other's aid after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, their declarations of war produced a domino effect. Take a look at these key developments:
1. June 28, 1914 - Gavrilo Princip assassinates Franz Ferdinand.
2. July 28, 1914 - Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.
3. August 2, 1914 - Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and Germany sign a secret treaty of alliance.
4. August 3, 1914 - Germany declares war on France.
5. August 4, 1914 - Germany invades Belgium, leading Britain to declare war on Germany.
6. August 10, 1914 - Austria-Hungary invades Russia.
As the war progressed, further acts of aggression drew other countries, including the United States, into the conflict. Many others, including Australia, India, and most African colonies, fought at the behest of their imperial rulers. But even the alliance theory is now considered overly simplistic by many historians. War came to Europe, not by accident, but by design, argues military historian Gary Sheffield. According to Sheffield, the First World War began for two fundamental reasons: “First, decision-makers in Berlin and Vienna chose to pursue a course that they hoped would bring about significant political advantages even if it brought about general war. Second, the governments in the entente states rose to the challenge.”
Which nation was the primary aggressor?
The question of which country or countries caused the war is sometimes flipped on its head by scholars who have asked which countries - had they conducted themselves - could have prevented it. Military historian Sir Max Hastings says that while no one nation deserves the blame alone, Germany is more guilty than most, as “it alone had the power to halt the descent to the disaster at any time in July 1914 by withdrawing its ‘blank cheque’ which offered support to Austria for its invasion of Serbia.”
Sir Richard J Evans, Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge disagrees, arguing that Serbian nationalism and expansionism were the root cause of the conflict. “Serbia bore the greatest responsibility for the outbreak of WW1,” Evans says, “and Serbian backing for the Black Hand terrorists was extraordinarily irresponsible”.
Why did the US join the war?
Until the US Congress declared war on Germany in April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson “had strained every political sinew” to keep the country out of the conflict, author Patrick Gregory writes for the BBC.
Despite widespread horror in the US over newspaper reports of German atrocities against civilians, the general feeling in the early months of the conflict was that American men should not risk their lives in a European war. That all started to change in May 1915, when a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the British passenger liner the Lusitania as it crossed the Atlantic, killing 1,198 of the 1,962 people on board. The attack provoked shock and fury across the world. Among the dead were 128 Americans, putting substantial pressure on the government to abandon its neutral stance on the conflict.
Although ambivalence to the war remained strong enough that Wilson campaigned for reelection in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war”, Gregory writes, the Lusitania atrocity swelled the ranks of the pro-war lobby, led by former president Theodore Roosevelt. In response to the outcry, Kaiser Wilhelm II halted U-boat operations in the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the pro-war sentiment in the US continued to fester - and when Germany announced plans to resume its naval strikes on passenger ships in January 1917, it exploded.
Public opinion was further inflamed, writes Gregory, over the emergence of a telegram, supposedly from the German foreign minister Arthur Zimmerman to Mexico offering military assistance if the US entered the war. Observers soon came to believe that the change in public feeling made US entry into the war inevitable, and eight weeks later Congress approved a resolution declaring war on Germany.
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