The Great War

The Great War was not great in the sense that it was good. It might better be called the Great Big War. It was a world war, involving not just European governments but people from Africa, Asia, and the Americas as well. Battles were fought in places colonized by the Europeans, and millions of Africans and Asians were brought from the colonies to support troops in Europe. But the Roman numeral was not assigned to the first World War until it had been over for a time—not until the second World War was clearly about to begin.

Everyone knows that the spark that ignited the Great War was the assassination of an Austrian archduke visiting Sarajevo. The fuel for the explosion, though, had been gathering over time. That fuel included the balance of power in Europe, the ideology of Nationalism, and the increase of technology that contributed to the war effort.

A century before the Great War, the wars of Napoleon were concluded and settled by the Congress of Vienna. Diplomats at that Congress recognized that power must be balanced among nations, with no single nation allowed to overwhelm the others. Five great powers were recognized: Great Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Over the next hundred years, these five powers coexisted in creative tension. They dealt with the rest of the world from a position of power—sometimes claiming land for their own colonies, and sometimes working with existing governments in the western hemisphere and in eastern Asia. Prussia consolidated pieces of the defunct Holy Roman Empire because of Nationalism—because they had a common German language, culture, and history. Bavaria wavered between joining Prussia and Austria, finally selecting the former; Bohemia, part of the Austrian Empire, hoped for independence but was denied its dream until after the Great War.

Austria and Russia had both been gaining land and population at the expense of the declining Ottoman Empire. Nationalism inspired eastern Europeans to prefer independence over a transfer from one empire to another, and Russia urged people in Austrian-held lands to keep the flame of nationalism burning, to take pride in their Slavic heritage. Nationalism united the several small portions of Italy under one government, leaving the Pope only a few acres within the city of Rome (Vatican City, still an independent country today). The consolidation of Germany was completed through three swift border wars with Austria, Denmark, and France, all of which Germany won. The German government, led by Otto von Bismarck, declared itself satisfied and rededicated itself to maintaining a balance of power. Representatives of European governments even met in Berlin to divide Africa among themselves, preventing conflict between the European nations, but failing to ask the opinions of any Africans.

European governments used the latest military technology to maintain control in their colonies. Machine guns were particularly effective at ending native uprisings. To maintain the British Empire (upon which the sun never set), Great Britain strengthened its navy, building larger and more powerful battleships. Germany competed with Britain, building its own battleships and also a fleet of submarines. Other inventions that would complicate the Great War included barbed wire, poison gases, armored vehicles, and aircraft. Aircraft would be used more for observation of enemy positions than for offensive capabilities, but the dogfights between pilots of different nations became part of the legend of the Great War.

Germany and Austria signed a pact agreeing that, if any nation attacked one of them, both would respond. France and Russia then adopted a similar agreement, fearing the united power of the two German-speaking nations. Italy, fearful of French power, joined the agreement with Germany and Austria, making a Tripartite Pact. Great Britain long remained aloof from these agreements, having no need to rely on other countries for its defense. Eventually, though, Britain entered an agreement with France and Russia.

Then came the assassination. Germany was eager to go to war. The German government had a plan, the Schlieffen Plan, under which they would sweep through the Netherlands and Belgium, entering France by the back door and quickly knocking it out of the war. The Austrian government was not so eager to start a war, but under German pressure they made demands upon the Serbians that could not be met. To support the Serbians, the Russians mobilized their army at the Austrian border. This allowed Germany to mobilize its forces, which then prompted France to do the same. Throughout July, European forces wavered on the brink of war—a war that both sides believed they would quickly win. Finally, at the beginning of August, the Germans took the first step to commit themselves to war. The Schlieffen Plan brought German troops into France, but the Germans did not advance as far as they hoped before French resistance brought them to a halt. Machine guns and barbed war inhibited the charges across a battlefield that were customary in war. Any such charge was disastrous, even suicidal—which did not prevent such charges from being attempted by both sides. Instead of a war rapidly fought and over by Christmas, as both sides expected, the conflict turned into trench warfare that stretched beyond Christmas 1914… and Christmas 1915… and Christmas 1916… and Christmas 1917….

Because Germany began the war, Italy did not feel compelled to join the fighting on the German side. The Tripartite Pact referred only to an attack upon one of the members; it did not require participation if one of the partners began the war. Italy held out for the best offer, and the side of the French and British and Russians made the better offer. They promised Italy new territory in eastern Europe, to be taken from the Austrian Empire, when the war was won. (That promise was not kept after the war.) Meanwhile, Germany and Austria made better progress in the east against Russia than they made against France and Britain. They found, however, that winning battles against the Russian army is not the same as defeating Russia—a lesson already learned by Charles XII of Sweden and by Napoleon. The best move made against the Russians occurred when the Germans located am exiled Russian revolutionary who called himself Vladimir Lenin in Switzerland. They put him on a train that carried him back into Russia. Organizing the soviets (groups of workers comparable to labor unions in the west), Lenin triggered a revolution that overthrew the Czar’s government. His new government pulled Russia out of the war, although Lenin’s government had to surrender control of much territory that the Czars’ armies had captured for Russia over many years.

When the Great War began in 1914, most citizens of the United States were determined to remain uninvolved. A generation earlier, the United States had tasted all-out warfare, and Americans had no interest in committing to a foreign war. True, the United States had (like Bismarck’s Germany) fought a brief and relatively painless war to gain territory: they had battled Spain in 1898, freeing the island of Cuba and gaining Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, and other Pacific islands. But the United States was more concerned about a civil war in Mexico. They sent troops to guard the southern border and had no inclination to go farther from home than Mexico. President Wilson even won reelection in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Shortly after his inauguration, however, Wilson changed policies, and the United States entered the Great War.

The British navy had tried blockading Germany to keep supplies (even food and clothing) from reaching Germany. The Germans responded with submarine attacks upon the blockade. Some American ships were lost during these campaigns. But freedom on the oceans was only one issue for Wilson and the Americans. Matters had calmed in Mexico, and the Czar had lost power in Russia. The war could now be portrayed as democracy (of the British and the French) against monarchy (of the German and Austrian). America’s soldiers could “make the world safe for democracy” while tilting the scales to conclude “the war to end all wars.” This hope of reshaping history and civilization brought the United States into the conflict. The difference was not felt immediately, but by the middle of 1918 the Germans and Austrians knew they could not win. Fighting continued while negotiating began. By November, the Germans had overthrown their government, and the new leaders called for an armistice. This armistice—which went into effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (11 a.m. November 11) of 1918 was only an agreement to stop shooting, and to sit down and talk. The actual agreements and their enforcement could not take place until 1919. No enemy troops had yet crossed into Germany or Austria when the armistice was declared. The actual agreements established in 1919 would differ greatly from what Germany, Austria, or even the United States expected. J.