World War I

When: 1914 – 1918

Beginning in 1914, World War I was history’s first truly global conflict. Kickstarted by the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian nobleman in Serbia, the conflict rapidly escalated because of a complex series of secret alliances that bound the European powers into mutual defence agreements. As the first waves of men began dying en masse at Liège and Marne, the powers called on manpower reserves from their colonies – and for the next four years of vicious combat, the entire world was affected in some way by the conflict. Enabled by the rapid advances of the industrial revolutions, the belligerent powers were able to innovate new ways of killing enemy humans at a breakneck pace. By the war’s end – an uneasy conclusion in 1918 that satisfied almost no one – next to nothing had been accomplished and the groundwork had been laid for a second, much more destructive, world war.

As entire generations of young men fought and died on the frontlines of Verdun, Gaza and Tsingtao, their families toiled away in factories back home. The years dragged on and more and more young men – increasingly drawn from the overseas colonies – were called up, causing social frustrations to boil over: in Mexico, Ireland and India, mass demonstrations took place while forcible regime change occurred in Portugal, China and Russia. This political turmoil, far behind the front lines, killed many millions as refugee crises and genocide took place. Mass movements of people uprooted by violence facilitated the rapid spread of the Spanish Flu, a pandemic that killed upwards of 50 million people. As you delve deeper into the (often-overlooked) history of WWI, both on the battlefield and off, remember to take into account the individual lives that were affected by the war – try not to get lost in the statistics.

Refugees from the Armenian Genocide – perpetrated by Turks – forced to flee to Syria. The war claimed millions of lives, many of the far from the battlefields we learn about in school. (The Boston Globe)


  • “Modern Warfare”
  • Revolutions
  • Decolonization
  • Mutinies
  • Genocide
  • Globalization
  • The Birth of Fascism
  • The Evolution of Industry
  • Collapse of Empires
  • Global Pandemics
  • Secret Alliances

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? The Allies (France, the Commonwealth, America, the Russian Empire [until 1917], Italy, Hejaz, Japan, and more). They faced off against the Central Powers (Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, and other co-belligerents in Eastern Europe and the Baltics). Nearly 70 million people took part in the fighting.
  • Where? In Europe (the Eastern and Western Fronts), the Middle East, North Africa, China, Southeast Asia, and the high seas.
  • When? From July 28th 1914 to November 11th, 1918 (AKA Armistice Day) – over 4 years.
  • What? Beginning in the early ‘teens, the Central Powers launched a multi-pronged attack against Western Europe and the Russian Empire. Allied defensive action stalled the German offensive, and the war devolved into a stalemate in the European trenches. As the conflict expanded to include the Middle East and the Pacific, a revolution in Russia – and an unpopular peace treaty with Germany – enabled the Central Powers to concentrate their entire force on Western Europe. A strong Allied counter-offensive managed to push the exhausted enemy forces back, however, resulting in a peace treaty in late 1918 – although fighting continued sporadically in the Baltics and Eastern Europe well into the 1920s.
  • Why? Trouble in the Balkans exploded with the assassination of Austro-Hungarian heir Franz Ferdinand on June 28th of 1914. A complex series of alliances and secret treaties meant that almost every European power – and by extension, their colonies – was drawn into the conflict within months. Ultimately, Allied superiority in manpower and supplies won out over the exhausted Central Powers.
  • Result: Complete collapse of the Central Powers, and political realignments in Europe and the Middle East. Nearly 20 million people were killed – half of them civilians – in what many viewed as a completely senseless conflict.

The World at War

The world in 1914. Note that although most of South America was decolonized by this point, the majority of Africa and Southeast Asia was still in European hands. This would begin to change by the end of WWI. (Wikimedia Commons)
The European alliance system in 1914. Due to the complex series of secret diplomatic treaties that existed, the entire continent – and by extension, most of the world – was drawn into conflict. (Vox)
The evolution of Russian territory from 1905-1922. Russia’s withdrawal from the Eastern Front left the Western Allies in a difficult position, leaving bad blood between the powers. (Pinterest)

Important Names

  • Georges Clemenceau (French president)
  • Woodrow Wilson (US president)
  • Henry Ford (US industrialist)
  • Mata Hari (Dutch dancer/German spy)
  • Sun Yat-sen (Chinese Republican president)
  • George V (King of the British Commonwealth)
  • Wilhelm II (Last German Kaiser)
  • Nicholas II (Last Russian Tsar)
  • Vladimir Lenin (First Soviet Chairman)
  • Mehmed VI (Last Ottoman Sultan)

The above themes and names are intended as a guide to kickstart your research. Because ASAP History is generalists’ site – that is, we cover all eras and events (within reason) – it is impossible for us to provide detailed insight on every historically important event or person. With that in mind, below is a collection of articles on significant events. Longer, more in-depth articles are bolded.

Culture & Society

Improved standards of living and a global feeling of patriotic optimism ran headfirst into the harsh realities of modern combat in 1914. Whole generations of young people were wiped out, leaving frustrated and heartbroken families at home. Although some aspects of culture and society were put “on hold” during the war, advancements in film and entertainment took place and generations of authors drew on their wartime experience to write pro (Ernst Jünger) or anti (Ernest Hemingway) war novels.

Concepts and Terminology

  • Modern art
  • The rise of radio and film
  • Jazz
  • “Lost generations”
  • Women’s suffrage

Revolution & Unrest

Frustrations with the futile and costly nature of the war – as well as long-standing social and political frustrations – exploded during and immediately after WWI. The most frequently cited example is the Russian Revolution, which saw the rise of history’s first communist power; but elsewhere, other important changes were taking place. In China and Portugal, centuries-old monarchies transitioned to republics and huge swells of anti-governmental sentiment rocked Mexico, Ireland and India. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed, leaving dangerous power vacuums.

Concepts and Terminology

  • Bolshevism
  • Republicanism
  • Armenian Genocide
  • Refugee crisis

Violence & Conflict

The war dominated the lives of a great portion of humanity during the period. Millions served on the front lines, and those who remained at home often participated directly in war industries – or felt the conflict’s effects as rationing and bombings took their toll. New developments in technology like armoured tanks, precision artillery, poison gas and light machine guns – combined with outdated tactics rooted in “chivalry” and “honour” – resulted in the deaths of millions of young men over small, muddy plots of land. By the war’s end, very little had actually changed; a large percentage of humans swore off war altogether, calling it the “war to end all wars”.

Concepts and Terminology

  • The Schlieffen plan
  • Two-front war
  • Chemical warfare
  • War crimes + the Geneva Convention
  • Trench combat
  • Colonial troops

Politics & Diplomacy

The incredibly convoluted system of secret alliances that existed prior to WWI – combined with the fact that a huge portion of the world’s population were European colonial subjects – meant that a small regional conflict in the Balkans exploded to include the entire world. Towards the war’s end, unsatisfying agreements like Versailles and Brest-Litovsk sowed the seeds for decades of resentment and ultimately only postponed further violence for twenty years. This period, as well as the ensuing Interbellum, were characterized by the diplomatic failures of the nascent international community.

Concepts and Terminology

  • Secret diplomacy
  • Self determination + the rights of minorities
  • Unrestricted submarine warfare
  • Unconditional surrender

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