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World War I

This article deals with the causes and course of World War 1, one of the most significant conflicts in world history. Although not occurring at the very beginning of the 20th century, it ushered in many of the huge changes for which the century is known, in society, politics, technology and many other fields.

Background to World War I

1871: A new power

In 1871, the sudden appearance of a powerful and ambitious new state added a new and destabilizing element to the other rivalries and tensions that divided the nations of Europe.

The German Empire (as it was called) was, at the moment of its birth, one of the most powerful nations in Europe.

By the end of the 19th century Germany was THE most powerful. It had the largest population of any European nation except Russia, and, by some measures (in steel production, for example) it was the greatest industrial power in Europe. It also had, by general admission, the best army in the world.

Unsurprisingly, all the other leading nations in Europe (who spoke of themselves as the Great Powers – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, France and Britain) were wary of her – but the Germans themselves also had major fears. German unification had come about in the aftermath of a crushing defeat of France, and the German government under Otto von Bismarck feared French revenge. It was right to do so. France had been badly humiliated in the brief war, and had had lost some of its territory, the border region of Alsace-Lorraine, to Germany. The Germans knew that the French would never really rest until they had it back.


Otto Van Bismarck, 1873 (Evert A. Duykinck, A Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America, with Biographies. New York: Johnson, Wilson and Company. Alonzo Chappel)

What Bismarck was particularly afraid of was that France would join forces with the giant to the east, Russia, and encircle Germany.

The Eastern Question

In south-east Europe, a region known as the Balkans, the Turkish (or Ottoman) Empire had been in decline for a century or more. This process speeded up from the mid-19th century onwards, and as the Turkish empire weakened, new European states emerged in the Balkans: Romania, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro and Bulgaria. The Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, the two Great Powers to the north of the Balkans, increasingly competed with one another for power and influence in this region.

The sudden emergence of Germany as a leading European power gave the Austro-Hungarian Empire the opportunity to look to it as an ally against Russia (which, as noted above, Germany feared as a potential ally of France). In 1879 Germany and Austro-Hungary signed a treaty of mutual protection. They were joined by Italy, which had its own reasons to fear France, in 1882. The three states formed the Triple Alliance.


By the early 1880s, therefore, not only had a new power suddenly appeared in Europe, but this power now stood at the heart of a three-nation alliance, which, although supposedly for mutual protection, made the other Great Powers (Russia, France and Britain) feel nervous.

For these powers, however, the situation was not straightforward, as they were rivals for territories around the world. This was the heyday of European imperialism, and Britain and France were grabbing territory in Africa and South East Asia, whilst Britain and Russia were competing for territory and influence in central Asia. To complicate matters for them, Germany and other countries wanted their own overseas empires.

These imperialistic rivalries were gradually settled in the early 1880s, with the European nations dividing up much of the rest of the world into “spheres of influence”. This paved the way for France and Russia to form an alliance of their own, in 1904.

For long, Britain was reluctant to entangle herself in continental alliances. The fact that she was an island, with the greatest empire the world had ever seen and protected by the most powerful navy in the world, meant that she had been more relaxed than the other Great Powers about the formation of the Triple Alliance. From the late 1890s, however, a new factor drove her into alliance with France and Russia.

After 1898 the Germans began building a powerful navy of their own, made up of the most up-to-date warships in the world. This posed a direct challenge to Britain’s naval power on which she depended for her security. The German policy set in motion a dramatic naval arms race between Britain and Germany. It also caused Britain to enter into alliance with Russia and France to form the Triple Entente in 1907.


The great powers of Europe were now divided into two rival camps, the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. Both had been formed to enhance the security of their member nations: although the different treaties varied in their details, all stipulated that, if a country was attacked by another, the other members of the alliance would come to her defense. The terms of both alliances stressed that the member nations had no obligation to come to the aid of a member which was pursuing an aggressive attack on another nation.

Unfortunately, in many international quarrels which consist of a series of threats and counter-threats, it is unclear who is the aggressor and who the victim. It was inevitable, therefore, that the alliances would be tested by diplomatic incidents. A number of crises raised the international temperature. The naval arms race between Britain and Germany morphed into a general militarization of the European powers.

Huge armies and navies were raised and equipped, and vast reserves of manpower created, in which much of the male population of Europe underwent military training and were liable to be called up at short notice. Britain was the only country which did not introduce conscription in this way.

The military commanders became very powerful in all these countries. Lethally, they all worked on secret plans to launch surprise attacks on one another.

To make matters worse, populist newspapers became very influential at this time. They whipped their populations into nationalist frenzies which the politicians could not resist.

Diplomatic Crises

The first major crises which brought the two Alliances to the verge of war was the First Moroccan Crisis (1905), when the French and the British, on the one hand, and Germany, on the other, clashed over the French occupation of that North African country.

The sudden Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a small country in the Balkans, came next (1908). It caused the Russians to mobilize in support of Serbia, which claimed Bosnia-Herzegovina as its own, and this in turn led the Austro-Hungarians to prepare for war. Germany and Britain only just managed to calm the situation down and prevent fighting from breaking out.

The next crisis came in 1911 when France sent troops into Morocco to deal with some anti-European riots there. Germany demanded that the French make concessions to her (Germany) in order to continue with a free hand in that part of the world. International talks again averted war, but the level of tension and suspicion had been ratcheted up further.

The Balkan Wars

A war in 1912 between the new Christian countries in the Balkans, on the one hand, and Turkey on the other resulted in Turkey losing practically all her European territory. However, the Balkan countries immediately started quarreling amongst themselves, with one side supported by Russia and the other by Austro-Hungary. A second war broke out (1913), this time with most of the Balkan countries (including Turkey) fighting against Bulgaria. Bulgaria was heavily defeated.

These two Balkan wars greatly increased anger and distrust within the Balkans, and again notched up tension between the Great Power alliances. Austro-Hungarian hopes of further southward expansion were now effectively blocked by a string of states supported by Russia. Furthermore, these pro-Russian states could meddle with ease in the affairs of the Balkan provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This they did, and World War I resulted.

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The Outbreak of War

1914: Sarajevo

On 28th June, 1914, an Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. There was evidence that the Serbian government were at least aware of the plot, if not a party to it.

Gavrilo Princip-Captured in-Sarajevo

This picture is often said to depict the arrest of en:Gavrilo Princip, although several scholars say that it depicts the arrest of Ferdinand Behr, a bystander who was initially suspected of involvement in the assassination, 28 June 1914 (Serbian archives)

Germany offered to support a furious Austro-Hungary in gaining compensation from Serbia. Thus fortified, the Austro-Hungarian government sent Serbia a list of demands which no government of an independent country could possibly agree to – they essentially demanded that Serbia give up its independence.

The Serbian government requested that the Austro-Hungarian government modify these demands; this was refused.

Russia began mobilizing its army and navy in support of Serbia, and Germany thereupon also began to mobilize.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia on the 28th July.

Russia started mobilizing in support of Serbia on the 30th July.

Germany declared war on Russia on the 1st August, and on France on August 3rd.

Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th, in support of its ally, France.

Austro-Hungary declared war on Russia on August 6th.

France and Britain declared war on Austro-Hungary on the 12th.

World War I was underway.

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The German high command considered Russia to be their main enemy. They assumed that it would take the Russians six weeks before they were fully mobilized. Following their well-developed “Schleiffen Plan”, therefore, the Germans set about throwing most of their forces against the French to quickly knock them out of the war. Then they could turn against Russia.

The German invasion of Belgium

Immediately on declaring war on France, Germany invaded Luxembourg, and two days later, Belgium. working to the detailed timetable worked out beforehand.

Britain at once began calling up volunteers. Hundreds of thousands of new recruits would soon be joining the army each month: by 1916, nearly two million men would have volunteered. Britain was also able to call on the support of the overseas territories of the British empire. The self-governing dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand all declared war on the Central Powers when Britain did, and soon forces would be coming in from these countries, as well as from Britain’s colonies in India, Africa, the West Indies and other territories. These forces would make an invaluable contribution to Britain’s war effort, fighting under Britain’s direction.


British Volunteer recruits in London, August 1914, (Q 53234, Imperial War Museums)

In the summer of 1914, however, the country had to make do with what it had available at the time. It immediately sent an army, the British Expeditionary Force, to France. This was far smaller than any other belligerent army, and on hearing of its size, the German Kaiser is said to have called it a “contemptible” little army (it was still almost half the fighting strength of the entire British army).

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrived in France on 7th August and took up its position on the northern flank of the French army, near the Channel coast. The French and British allies then moved up to support the Belgians. Here they put up fiercer resistance than the Germans had expected.

The Mediterranean

Although a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austro-Hungary, Italy announced its intention of remaining neutral in the coming conflict.

On the 2nd August the Turkish government had entered into a secret alliance with Germany. It closed the Dardanelles (and hence the Black Sea) to Allied shipping on the 5th, thereby effectively isolating Russia from aid from its Allies (the other main route between the western Allies and Russia was through the Baltic, now tightly controlled by the German navy).

The Germans had two powerful battlecruisers near Italy, the Goebben and the Breslau. The British and French fleets were expecting these either to attack the French convoys ferrying Algerian troops to the war zones in France, or to head west into the Atlantic, to attack shipping there. In fact the German ships headed for Istanbul, the capital of Turkey. Once there, to avoid Turkey breeching its neutrality at this time, the two powerful warships were officially transferred to the Turkish navy. However, they retained their German officers and crew, and the German admiral became the commander-in-chief of the Turkish navy.

This maneuver was greeted with popular approval within Turkey, and helped shift Turkish sentiment decisively towards Germany.

The two warships would play little part in the rest of the war, but their presence in the Black Sea prevented the Russian navy from playing an important role in supporting the Russian campaign in the Caucasus.


On 14th August, the French army attacked the German forces in Lorraine. This was to fulfill one of France’s main war objectives, the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine, regions historically part of France but occupied by the Germans back in 1871. The French invasion of Lorraine was quickly pushed back by German forces in the area.

Russian invasions of Germany and Austro-Hungary

Meanwhile, in the East, the Russian mobilization had been completed within just 11 days, rather than the 6 weeks the Germans had been expecting. Germany’s eastern borders were fairly lightly garrisoned, and two Russian armies invaded German territory. The German people were stung by the occupation of their territory by Russian armies, and the German high command had no choice but to switch troops from the West to the East.

The Russians also invaded Galicia, which belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The main Austro-Hungarian army had invaded Serbia, in expectation of a quick victory. However, the Russians’ unexpected invasion of their eastern frontiers forced the transfer of large numbers of troops to meet that threat. This left a much smaller army to continue the invasion of Serbia than had been planned.

The Eastern Front


The reinforced German army in eastern Germany met one of the two Russian armies which had invaded their country at Tannenberg on 26th August. In the battle which followed, the Germans encircled the Russian army, and by the 29th August had killed, wounded or captured all but 10,000 of the original 150,000 Russian soldiers involved.

The scale of the defeat was a huge blow to Russian morale. The Russian commander, Samsonov, committed suicide.

Masurian Lakes

The Germans then marched on the second of the Russian armies in eastern Germany, and a second battle began on 7th September, at the Masurian Lakes. This ended on the 14th September with a second Russian defeat. Although sustaining huge losses – 150,000 men against 40,000 Germans – the Russians were able to retreat in an orderly fashion, withdrawing from German territory back into Russian-ruled Poland.


The Germans attempted to follow up their success and capture Warsaw. They were unsuccessful,  due to the huge concentration of Russian troops in the area and the onset of bad weather, which made movement difficult. The Russians then attempted a second invasion of Germany, while the Germans tried again to capture Warsaw. These maneuvers led to the battle at Lodz, on 11th-24th November, which was a draw.

After this, the Russians abandoned any attempt to invade Germany again, and withdrew to a more defensible line in front of Warsaw, which the Germans had failed to capture.


In Galicia (the southern sector of the Eastern Front), the confused situation in which Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies were operating in each others’ territories began to resolve itself in a series of engagements, collectively known as the battle of Lemberg. These started on 23rd August. After some initial successes, by 11th September the Austro-Hungarian army had been heavily defeated by the Russians.

The Russians were then able to push the front well into Austro-Hungarian territory, in the Carpathian mountains. They laid siege to the huge fortress of Przemysel.

(Continued in 1915)

The Western Front

The German invasion of France

Meanwhile. the switching of troops from West to the East to deal with the Russian invasion of course weakened the German forces in the West, and the French and British armies were able to slow down the German invasion of Belgium.

The first major battle in which the British and German armies faced each other was at Mons, starting on 24th August. Here, the rifle fire of the British troops was so rapid and accurate that the Germans temporarily fell back.

After a time, however, the weight of German numbers and their efficient organization enabled them to begin pushing the French and British armies back again. These slowly retreated into France, fighting stubbornly and inflicting heavy casualties.

The Germans pushed them back towards Paris, until, on the river Marne only 20 miles from the French capital, the Allies counter-attacked (5th September). The battle of the Marne raged on for 6 days, with the gunfire heard in Paris. As time went by, the Germans’ over-stretched lines of communication proved increasingly unable to keep their troops supplied properly, and the German commanders decided to withdraw.

The advent of trench warfare

While the Marne campaign had been going on, other German troops had been preparing positions at the German rear, on a line of easily-defended hilly ground in northeast France and Belgium. It was to these that the Germans now withdrew, and dug themselves in.

The French and British followed, and also dug themselves in opposite the German trenches. To prevent encirclement, each side extended their defensive lines, along natural barriers, to the Belgian coast in the north, and to the borders of Switzerland (a neutral country, and a very mountainous one, making invasion out of the question) in the south. A line of trenches now ran for hundreds of miles between the North Sea and the Alps.

While the French had enemy troops (in vast numbers) on their soil, there could be no peace. For almost the next four years – until the second half of 1918 – the Western Front was dominated by almost stationary trench warfare – very uncomfortable and unrelentingly dangerous for all involved.

German soldier-fighting-from a trench

German soldiers of the 11th Reserve Hussar Regiment fighting from a trench, on the Western Front, 1916 (Oscar Tellgmann, Q1721812)


The BEF was on the north flank of the Allied advance, nearest the sea. When both sides had stopped moving, the BEF found themselves in control of a town near the Belgian coast called Ypres. This town was an important road and rail center, and whoever controlled it controlled the area around it – a piece of land which stuck out into German-held territory. The Germans were determined to retake it.

The first of four battles of Ypres started. It lasted for a month, from 12th October to 11th November. Despite many efforts, the Germans, many of whom were new recruits, were unable to take the town from the experienced British troops. In the fighting, the town was laid waste – as was the country round about. In November, the rain turned the countryside to mud and made movement impossible. With the arrival of French reinforcements for the British, the Germans stopped their attacks and the fighting fizzled out.

The battle had cost the Germans about 135,000 casualties. Although British losses were fewer, at about 75,000, most of these were the well-trained soldiers of the BEF. From now on it would be the new volunteers who would have to bear the brunt of the fighting within the British ranks. The surviving trained troops were distributed amongst the new British units coming over to France.

(Continued in 1915)

The Balkans

Austro-Hungarian and Serbian forces met at Jadar, 20th August. The Serbian forces succeeded in driving the Austrians back out of their country after nearly ten days of fighting. The Serbian army, though ill-equipped, was made up of the battle-hardened veterans of two recent Balkan Wars, and this is what won them the day.

However, in short order the Austro-Hungarian forces invade Serbia again. The sheer weight of Austro-Hungarian numbers drove the ill-equipped Serbs back from their lines towards Belgrade, their capital. On 2nd December the Austro-Hungarian army entered the city.

The Serbian army, however, was now able to re-arm with some modern artillery and other equipment sent by its French and British Allies. The Serbs then conducted a massive and highly successful counter-attack against a section of the enemy. This exposed the Austro-Hungarian troops in Belgrade to the threat of encirclement, and their commander quickly gave the order to withdraw. The Austro-Hungarians hurried back all the way into their own territory.

The two sides were back to where they had started, each having lost hundreds of thousands of men. The Austro-Hungarians were now forced to keep large numbers of troops on the Serbian front, thus weakening their efforts against Russia in the north.

(Continued in 1915)


Turkey joined the war on the side of the Central Powers (those fighting with Germany) on 14th November.

This was a blow to the Allies (those fighting with Britain and France), as it put the Suez Canal – the main communication artery between Britain and France on the one hand, and their colonies and economic interests in the East on the other – at grave risk. Troops from British India, Australia and New Zealand, and from French Indo-China, came though the Canal, as did oil from Persia to keep the Allied armies and navies moving. All this was now in jeopardy.

At the end of 1914 British and Indian troops landed at Basra, on the Persian Gulf, to secure the oil fields in Iraq, vital to the Allied war effort. They advanced on Turkish forces defending Iraq (then known to the British as Mesopotamia).

The Russians launched an offensive against the Turks in the Caucasus, However they soon found themselves threatened with encirclement by superior numbers, and had to retreat. The Turks were encouraged by this success to hope for massive territorial gains in that region (which they viewed as rightly theirs). They launched their own ambitious offensive, and the battle of Sarikamis started in Dec 1914, in harsh winter conditions.

(Continued in 1915)

The War At Sea

The North Sea

The British fleet mobilized on 2nd August.

Britain’s army may have been much smaller than those of any other of the major combatants, but her navy was by far the largest in the world. Germany had the second most powerful navy in the world, and this was based at the North Sea port of Keil. In the years before the outbreak of war, the British navy had been concentrating its warships in home waters, to face the growing strength of the German fleet.

At the outbreak of the war the two largest fleets in the world thus faced each other across 400 miles of North Sea. Both Britain and Germany faced a harsh reality: whichever of their main fleets was destroyed in battle, that country would be wide open to invasion. As the British admiral Jellicoe said, the war could be lost in an afternoon. Such was the risk, that the main fleets of both navies remained mostly in port. What active fighting there was was between small squadrons of warships.

The British Grand Fleet (as it was called) was based at Scapa Flow, in northern Scotland. From there it could pounce on any major excursion by the German fleet.

The British navy began its blockade of German ports on 2nd November, with small warships stopping merchant ships sailing in and out of German ports.

The German economy depended upon imports of food and raw materials – and these now came to a stop. Within a short time there were major food shortages in German cities. It took several months for the Germans to move their economy over to war production, which included intensified food production.

On 3rd November and again on 16th December, warships of the German navy bombarded some towns on the East Coast of England. They did little major damage, but 137 people, mostly civilians, were killed, causing outrage in Britain. In both cases the German ships reached the safety of their port before the British navy was able to catch them.

(Continued in 1915)

The Rest of the World

The Mediterranean was the scene of dramatic naval maneuvering in the opening stages of the war (see above), bit no major action took place. Elsewhere, especially in the Indian and Pacific oceans, individual armed German raiders caused some disruption to Allied shipping, but were quickly destroyed. The mostly significant naval action outside the North Sea occurred in December, off the Falkland Islands. Here the German Pacific squadron, attempting to return home, was caught by a more powerful British squadron and sunk.

The Colonies

Cut off from Germany because of the British navy’s control of the seas, most German colonies quickly fell into the hands of the Allies. However, a German force in South West Africa would hold out undefeated until the very end of the war.

In the Pacific, New Zealand occupied Samoa, Australia occupied New Guinea and the Bismark archipelago, and Japan occupied the Marshal Islands. A joint British-Japanese force took Kaiochow, on the coast of China.

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The German high command decided to concentrate on the Eastern Front, in order to push the Russians back from their borders and remove the threat of another Russian invasion of Germany. To allow them to concentrate troops in the East, the Germans adopted a defensive stance on the Western Front.

After initial failures the Germans pushed the Russians back out of Poland.

The Eastern Front

In February, the Germans launched an offensive against the Russians in Poland. Apart from inflicting huge casualties on the Russians, this achieved little.

On the southern sector of the Eastern Front, all Austro-Hungarian attempts to relieve their fortress of Przemysel failed, and the siege ended on March 22nd when the Austrian garrison surrendered.

Under unified German command, German and Austro-Hungarian forces launched a major offensive against the Russians in Galicia, in the the Gorlice-Tarnow area (at the southern end of the Eastern Front), on 2nd-4th May. They shattered the Russian front there, capturing 140,000 men. The Russians were forced to withdraw from most of Galicia. The fortress of Przemysel was recaptured by the Central Powers on 3rd June. They captured the town of Lwow on 22nd June.

On 13th July the Central Powers opened a new offensive. The Russian front in the south collapsed, and their forces withdrew northward. At the same time other German forces attacked east in northern Poland. The Russian forces still in central Poland were now in a very exposed position. These were therefore ordered to withdraw. They evacuated Warsaw on 4-5th August, and had evacuated the rest of Poland by the end of the month.

The Russian army established itself along a shorter, more defensible line. Russian counter-attacks from this new position were able to halt the enemy advance.

The campaign had cost Russia 750,000 men killed and captured. On 21st August, the Russian commander-in-chief, Grand Duke Nicholas, was dismissed. Tsar Nicholas II took personal command of the army.

(Continued in 1916)

The Western Front

By the beginning of 1915 the Western Front had become static, with both sides dug into trenches along a long line between the Channel coast and the Swiss border. The lines were separated from each other by a few hundred yards of “No Man’s Land”. The story of 1915 was mostly one of on-going trench warfare, punctuated by a few attempts to take high ground from the other side.

The German plan was now to dig in and defend a wide front. In most places, the German line was on higher ground, giving them the advantage of a view over the enemy positions, and forcing the enemy to attack uphill. As the main German objective was now to hold ground, rather than take it, they could make their positions as strong as possible, and wait for the enemy to attack. As a result, in the first two and a half years of the war, every major action saw the French and British taking more losses than the Germans.

The Allies’ aim was to take ground back. It was not their intention to stay where they were. They therefore could not dig themselves in as snugly as the Germans. Their trenches were more temporary in construction, shallower, less comfortable than the Germans’ ones were; and, being on lower ground, more exposed.

Behind the lines

Large parts of northern France became a militarized zone – railways were commandeered for army use, camps, depots, hospitals, weapons stores, command posts and so on were set up. The Channel ports were turned over to the handling of troops, equipment and supplies. A huge integrated system to support the fighting effectiveness of the Allied front came into being.

Britain had effectively lost her professional army at the battle of Ypres. An important element of what was going on in northern France, then, was the building-up a new volunteer army. For the most part, new troops were not sent to the front at this time, but were occupied in being organized and trained in various locations. They were gradually sent up to the front in the second half of 1915 and the first half of 1916. Until then the French bore the lion’s share of the fighting.

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle

In pursuit of their objective of taking ground, on March 10th French and British forces advanced along a line in the Voges region. Despite some initial success the attack largely failed, at a cost of some 13,000 casualties.

The Second Battle of Ypres

Such was the strategic importance of the town of Ypres, near the Belgian coast, that on 22nd April the Germans launched a second attempt to retake it from the Allies (the 2nd Battle of Ypres).

The Germans opened by launching the first poison gas attack in history, on the Allied troops along a 5 mile section of the front. Never having experienced anything like this, the French and Algerian troops broke and ran. Wearing gas masks, the Germans occupied the trenches which had been vacated. Their further advance was blocked by British and Canadian troops, but the high ground to the north of the town had been lost to the Allies. The Germans were able to use this high ground to shell Ypres into utter ruin, but, despite further attacks, including repeated use of deadly chlorine gas, they were unable to take any more territory.

The battle lasted until 25th May, when the fighting here again subsided.

The Battle of Arras, 9th May – 24th June

While the British were engaged at Ypres, the French decided to attack the German line at Arras, with the objective of taking Vimy Ridge (the German positions on Vimy Ridge had a commanding view over the French lines and this gave them a great tactical advantage). They launched the attack on 9th May, but, despite early success, were unable to take the ridge.

The Battle of Loos

On 25th September, the Allies launched an offensive along the Loos sector of the front, again with the aim of taking high ground held by the Germans. The French came within a whisker of taking Vimy Ridge, but were then pushed back. The British failed to gain any ground, whilst suffering 50,000 casualties. The French suffered 48,000 casualties and the Germans about 24,000. The comparatively low German casualties was largely due to their advantage of high ground which they had.

(Continued in 1916)

The Italian Front

On 23rd May 1915 Italy declared war on the side of Allies, despite having been a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austro-Hungary before the war. It did so on promises made by the Allies that Italy would receive lands belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire which Italian nationalists regarded as belonging to Italy.


Italian Alpini troops; 1915 (Bibliotheque nationale de France, Agence Rol)

In June the Italians launched a major offensive against the Austro-Hungarians in the Isonzo region. Although the Italians had a numerical advantage, the Austrians had the advantage of high ground and had dug themselves into trenches. They also had more experience, better training and higher morale. Over the next 18 months the Italians were to launch 11 offensives in that region.

The Italians attacked again and again through the summer and autumn, displaying huge courage and taking enormous casualties. They were able to capture little territory, and they called off the offensive in the winter. They had lost of some 300,000 men.

(Continued in 1916)

The Balkans

Austria-Hungary was unable to continue its fight against Serbia very actively, as, when Italy entered war against it, it had to switch troops to the Italian front.

On 21st September, Bulgaria joined the war on side of Central Powers. The Serbian army was then overwhelmed by a joint German-Austrian-Bulgarian offensive.

On 5th October, British and French forces landed at Salonika, in northern Greece, in support of Serbia. However, they were a long way from Serbia, and were cut off from their ally by strong Bulgarian and German forces. They could do little more than dig themselves in. By 7th October the Serbian army had been defeated, and withdrew into Albania, towards the coast. There the Allies evacuated it to the Greek island of Corfu.

The allied violation of Greek neutrality by occupying Salonike provoked political unrest in Greece between pro-German and pro-Allied factions.

(Continued in 1916)



In an effort to end the stalemate on the Western Front, the Allies decided to launch an attack on Turkey.

On 19th February, the British navy attacked Turkish forts on the Dardanelles. The ships made slow progress, with minesweepers having to clear the way for the bigger ships. The minesweepers came under heavy fire from forts set too far back from the shore for the British ships to silence.

Finally, to speed the operation up, on March 18th a large force of British and French battleships entered the straits. Soon three Allied ships had been sunk by mines, and others seriously damaged. The fleet withdrew, having lost 700 men.

After this set back, the Allies decided to land troops to do the job. The Turks had been given plenty of advanced warning by the Allied naval bombardment, and had prepared their defenses.

Those Allied troops which were already nearby were hurriedly gathered together for the task – a motley collection of British, Australians, New Zealanders, French and French colonials – 70,000 troops in all.


Australian troops charging near a Turkish trench during the Gallipoli Campaign (Between circa 1915 and circa 1919, National Archives at College Park)

Landings on the coast at Gallipoli, near Istanbul, began in 25th April. Turkish snipers and machine-gunners inflicted dreadful casualties on the Allies, who were unable to break out from the Gallipoli beaches and move inland.

In October, it was decided to evacuate the force from Gallipoli. This operation began on 20th December. It was well-planned and well-executed. It was completed in January 1916.

Of 480,000 Allied soldiers taking part in the Gallipoli campaign, 205,000 had been killed or wounded.

The Caucasus

The battle of Sarikamis (December 1914-January 1915), fought in freezing winter conditions, was a disaster for the Turkish army. Allowing for the comparatively small numbers of troops involved, it was the most lethal battle of the entire war: virtually an entire army was destroyed, with enormous casualties. Most of those killed probably died from cold, starvation and disease rather than enemy fire.

A Russian offensive then began, now aided by a rebellion by Armenian separatists.

To shore up its control of its Caucasian frontiers, the Turkish government ordered the arrest of Armenian leaders and intellectuals, and the deportation of all Armenians from the war zone. This policy caused a huge amount of suffering. Within the war zone itself, the troops carrying out the policies on the ground seem to have got out of control, and soon a full-scale massacre of Armenians was under way.

The second half of 1915 saw a renewed Russian offensive, which pushed the Turks further back.


In January, Turkish forces invaded Egypt, threatening the Suez Canal – a vital communications link between Britain and France and their colonies in the East. They were repulsed by the British and colonial troops guarding the canal.

The Turkish army in Palestine and Sinai was then strengthened in preparation for a major invasion of Egypt.


The British and India forces continued their advance into Mesopotamia, up the river Tigris. The Turks at that time were preoccupied with their fronts in Gallipoli, Egypt and the Caucasus, and their garrison in Mesopotamia were comparatively weak.

The British and Indian forces defeated the Turks and entered Kut el Amara, 28th September. They moved forward to Baghdad, but lack of supplies and ammunition forced them back to Kut, where, by 7th December, they found themselves encircled and besieged by the Turks. Kut itself was a defensible site, but it was isolated and difficult for the remaining British forces in Basra to relieve it.

(Continued in 1916)

The War at Sea

The North Sea

On January 24th a short, sharp action occurred between British and Germans cruisers at battle of Dogger Bank. One German cruiser was sunk.

German warships bombarded Yarmouth and Lowestoft, 19th-20th May. Their aim was to entice powerful British forces out to sea and into a trap where they could be overwhelmed by more powerful German forces. However, both sides suffered from the poor visibility and confused signaling, and although some sharp actions between light naval forces took place, no major fleet action resulted. The Germans returned to port with minor damage.

The Submarine offensive

From 18th February, the Germans began submarine warfare against Allied merchant shipping in a zone around Britain. As it soon became apparent that Allied ships had taken to flying flags of neutral nations, the submarine attacks were extended to include neutral shipping in this zone as well.

Lusitania1907, 13 September 1907 (Wikipedia, International Film Service)

On the 7th May, a German submarine sunk the British liner, Lusitania. Over 1,000 lives were lost, 128 of whom were United States citizens.

Bowing to American fury, on 18th September the Germans placed a limit on submarine attacks on ships definitely identifiable as Allied ships, and then only after a warning had been given. This meant losing all element of surprise, rendering the submarine campaign far less effective.

(Continued in 1916)     Back to Contents


After their victories on the Eastern Front, the Germans switched their focus back to the West. They decided on a policy to “bleed France white” – to inflict such casualties on the French army that they would have no choice but to sue for peace.

The Western Front

The Battle of Verdun, 21st February to 18th December

Verdun was a garrison town of great historic significance to the French. It was surrounded by several strong fortresses. The Germans calculated that it would be such a blow to French morale if they lost this town that they would do anything to avoid it. They hoped that so many French soldiers would die defending Verdun that the French army would be permanently weakened – thus fulfilling their intention to “bleed France white”.


French troops attacking under artillery fire, at the Fleury ravine, (Collier’s New Photographic History of the World’s War, Collier and Son)

The Germans concentrated a million troops on the sector of attack. The French had only 200,000 troops to defend Verdun.

The Germans initially succeeded in pushing the French back, getting to within 5 miles of the town. The French brought in reinforcements (it is thought that 66% of the French army would at one time or another fight at Verdun during the battle), and had managed to halt the German advance by the end of February. In March the Germans launched a new offensive, and continued to push the French back in fits and starts through April, May and June. They reached to within 2 miles of Verdun, but at huge cost in Germans casualties.

In early July, the Germans had to transfer large numbers of troops away from the Verdun offensive to meet the British attack on the Somme. The French then counter-attacked, and through the summer and autumn of 1916 pushed the Germans back. The fighting around Verdun finally stopped on 8th December, bringing to an end the longest battle of the war.

The Germans had been right: the French had done everything in their power to save Verdun from falling into enemy hands. In the process they had lost 550,000 men killed and wounded. However, the Germans had lost 450,000 men. They had failed to tip the war in their favor.

Verdun became a symbol of French determination and self-sacrifice.

The Battle of the Somme, 1 July-18 November

The terrible French losses at Verdun prompted the French high command to ask the British to carry out a diversionary attack on the Somme sector of the Western Front, so as to draw German troops away. In the forthcoming battles, therefore, the British intention was, firstly, to help take the pressure off their Allies at Verdun, and only secondly was it to try and break through the German lines. As a diversionary attack it had some success, but in the end the casualties at the battle of the Somme were even worse than at Verdun.

2nd battalion gordon-highlanders-crossing

2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders crossing no man’s land near Mametz, ( Imperial War Museum, Q 87)

The British government had introduced conscription in January, though such had been the level of volunteering that this did not produce a huge number of new troops.

The British plan was to attack 20 miles of the most heavily-defended stretch of German front line. For 10 days prior to the attack, British artillery rained down more than 1.7 million shells on the German trenches, to weaken their defenses.

The guns fell silent on July 1st, and at “zero hour”, 7.30 am, nearly 100,000 British soldiers climbed out of their trenches and walked towards the Germans lines. They were met with machine gun fire ripping into their ranks. The bombardment had not killed the Germans, who had been sheltering in very deep and well-built dug-outs and tunnels. Nor had it damaged the barbed wire in front of the German trenches. It had only made it even more entangled and impassable. To make matters worse, the bombardment had turned “No Man’s Land” into a sea of shell craters, making it more difficult for the British soldiers to cross.

That day, the British army suffered the worst casualties in its entire history. Over 20,000 soldiers were killed or missing, and over 34,000 wounded. For many of these soldiers, inexperienced volunteers that they were, this was their first taste of battle.

The battle of the Somme continued throughout the summer and autumn of 1916. The British troops, and the French troops sent to reinforce them, continued to attack. They gradually captured German positions, while continuing to suffer heavy casualties. In November, winter weather brought the Allied offensive to an end. By this time, the Allies had captured ground along a 20 mile stretch of the front, 7 miles deep at its deepest.

The Somme had a big impact on British public opinion. Many people questioned the terrible losses for so small a result. It led to the fall of the Liberal government which had been in charge of the war up to now. On December 7th Lloyd George became Prime Minister of a coalition government.

(Continued in 1917)

The Eastern Front

Prompted by its Western Allies, who were facing the attack on Verdun and planning the offensive on the Somme, the Russians planned an offensive to relieve pressure on the Western Front and Italy.

By this time, Russian industry was producing the ammunition and weaponry the army needed in good quantities. Glaring deficiencies in its equipment gone. Soldiers were now properly trained. Russia’s inexhaustible manpower had made good the huge losses of the previous 17 months. The Central Powers had made huge territorial gains, but this meant that the Russian army had a shorter front line to defend.

A massive Russian offensive was launched, under the command of general Brusilov, on 4th June. The Russian army advanced over a wide front against the Austro-Hungarian sector. The offensive had been thoroughly prepared, and by 8th June the enemy was in full retreat. The Russians made spectacular advances.

The Germans however rushed to reinforce their allies, and had arrived at the fighting by late June.

The great Russian offensive plowed on into August. However, Brusilov was unsupported by the generals on the other fronts, and some of his troops were diverted to help the Romanians (see below). By August 10th Brusilov’s offensive had come to a halt. By this time the Russians had lost 500,000 men and the Austro-Hungarians 375,000.

Romania’s defeat by the Central Powers left Brusilov’s forces badly in danger of being attacked from the flank, and they were compelled to withdraw.

Russian casualties had been huge – by the end of the campaign almost a million men had been killed, wounded or imprisoned. However, the Austro-Hungarian army, already in poor shape, had been very badly mauled, and would never fully recover from this ordeal.

(Continued in 1917)

The Balkans

The Serbian army which had been evacuated to Corfu, and had been resting and re-equipping itself there, was now transported by the French navy round to join the Allied forces in Salonika.

The political scene in Greece was becoming increasingly pro-German – a feeling carefully nurtured by the Germans. Afraid of the Greeks joining the war on the side of the Central Powers, the Allies ordered the Greek army to demobilize. In the face of the large Allied presence at Salonika, the Greeks did this, but pro-German feelings within the country intensified.


Between 10th Sept and 19th November, Bulgarian and German forces launched an offensive against Allied positions in Salonika, but were pushed back.

In launching their offensive, Bulgarians crossed into Greece, and precipitated a major political crisis there between the pro- and anti-Central Power factions. In the upshot, Salonika and the north of Greece came to be governed by a pro-Allied faction, while a pro-Central Power government remained in Athens.


Romania entered the war on the side of the Allies and invaded Austro-Hungarian controlled Transylvania on 27th August. It had made a secret treaty with the Allies whereby, in the post-war settlement, Romania would receive Transylvania, where many people of Romanian origin lived.

The Romanians pushed the Austro-Hungarian army there back, until German and Austro-Hungarian reinforcements arrived. The Romanian advance was halted in mid-September. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians then began to advance. A unified German-Bulgarian army, with some Turkish forces, attacked Romania from the south.

Russian troops were sent to aid the Romanians, and succeeded in slowing the Central Powers’ advance; but by the end of October the Romanian army was back to its borders. As winter approached the Germans and Bulgarians pressed on into Romania, and on December 6th they entered the capital, Bucharest. The Romanian army retreated to the north east of the country to fight on.

(Continued in 1917)

The Italian Front

The Italian army continued to launch offensives in the Isonzo region, at great cost. Then, in May and June, the Austro-Hungarians launched a counter-offensive in the Asiago region. They pushed the Italians back and were on the point of breaking through into the north Italian plain, when they had to withdraw forces from the Italian Front to deal with the huge Russian offensive on the Eastern Front.

The Italian army pushed the Austro-Hungarians back from the town of Gorizia in August – a victory of no great importance but a morale booster nonetheless. More Italian offensives followed in the region, to little effect.

On 13th December, 10,000 Italian troops were killed by avalanches in the Dolomites.

(Continued in 1917)


The Caucasus

The Russian offensive came to an end, having pushed the Turkish army far back and with much new territory gained.

On this sector, some desultory fighting was now taking place – small-scale offensives and counter-offensives, some small towns captured and recaptured, but no great changes in the front line. Both sides were now preoccupied elsewhere.


With the abandonment of the Gallipoli campaign, the British and colonial forces defending Egypt and the Suez Canal were reinforced. Fighting between British and Turkish forces developed as both sides tried to occupy the oases controlling the route between Palestine and the Suez Canal.

The Turkish army – strengthened by contingents of Germans troops – mounted a major attack on British forces in Egypt guarding the Suez Canal. This attack was defeated by British and colonial forces at the battle of Romila, 3rd-5th August. The Turkish forces were then driven far back into Sinai.


An Arab revolt broke out against Turkish rule in June. It swiftly captured the pilgrimage city of Mecca and the Red Sea port of Jiddah. In October, however, their attack on the city of Medina was repulsed by the Turkish garrison there.

The British sent a number of officers to help co-ordinate the activities of the Arab insurgents with the British army. One of these, T.E. Lawrence – later known as Lawrence of Arabia – would achieve particular fame. He persuaded the Arab leaders not to attack major Turkish positions head-on, but to conduct a guerrilla campaign against railways and other soft targets. In this way the Arabs would tie down far larger numbers of Turkish troops.

The end of the year saw a determined attempt by the Turks to recapture the Red Sea port of Yanby was turned back by Arab guerrillas, supported by ships of the small British naval squadron in the Red Sea, and by some British warplanes. It also saw the start of the formation of a regular Arab army, recruited from Arabs who had served in the Turkish army and who had been captured by the British.


The British and Indian troops besieged in Kut el Amara surrendered to Turkish forces on 29th April. This was a major humiliation for the British.

The British reinforced their troops in Basra, and after a period of preparation started a new offensive in Mesopotamia in December.

(Continued in 1917)

The War at Sea

The Battle of Jutland, 31 May-1 June

The only major sea battle between the British and German main fleets took place on 31st May to 1st June, in the North Sea off the coast of Jutland.

The british-grand-fleet-sailing

The British Grand Fleet sailing in parallel columns in World War I (Wikimedia)

In a confused action, 259 warships of all sizes were involved. The Germans inflicted more damage on the larger British fleet, and so claimed victory. However, it was the German navy which broke off the action first and retired to port, where it remained for the rest of the war. Jutland was therefore a strategic victory for the British.

As a consequence of the battle, the British navy was free to patrol the North Sea for the remainder of the war. It was able to blockade Germany very effectively, preventing much-needed food and raw materials from being imported into Germany. This severely hampered the German war effort and greatly contributed to the eventual Allied victory.

(Continued in 1917)

A new German strategy

The blockade was now really hurting the Germans. By now, major food items – meat, bread and so on – were available in only a third or quarter of the quantity of peacetime levels. Deaths from malnutrition were beginning to occur.

Also, by this phase in the war the forces of the Central Powers were being outnumbered by those of the Allies. The governments of the Central Powers were beginning to despair of victory, and made peace overtures to the Allies. These were rejected.

At end of the year the Germans decided on a new strategy. They would hunker down on land, behind reinforced lines of defense; but at sea they would launch unrestricted submarine warfare against British shipping lanes, to starve Britain into surrender.

Back to Contents


On 3 February, in response to the new submarine campaign (see below), President Wilson of the USA severed all diplomatic relations with Germany, and the U.S. Congress declared war on 6 April.

The Western Front

The Hindenburg Line

Over the winter of 1916-7, in pursuit of their strategy of hunkering down behind reinforced lines, the Germans had constructed the “Hindenburg Line”.

A-German-Hannover-CL III-Shot down

A German Hannover CL III shot down on 4 October 1918 by American machine gunners (Pvt. J. E. Gibbon, U.S. Army)

The Germans had suffered heavy losses on the Western Front in 1916, and had failed to achieve any real success. On the Eastern Front the Austro-Hungarian army had taken enormous losses, with the consequence that the German army now had to take more of the strain on that front. Also, Romania had now declared war on the Central Powers. All these factors meant that the German army was in danger of becoming severely over-stretched.

The Germans therefore constructed the Hindenburg Line to shore up their defenses on the Western Front.  The Line was shorter than the previous front line, requiring fewer troops to man it. It incorporated lessons learned during the war, and so was even tougher to break through than the original German lines.

Expecting an Allied offensive, the Germans withdraw to the new defenses between February and March. As they withdrew, they demolished buildings, roads, railways, bridges – anything that could be of assistance to the Allies. When the Allies realized what was happening, they advanced up to occupy the ground vacated by the Germans. In late March and early April small-scale fighting occurred along this sector of the Front, as villages in the area were taken and retaken by both sides, before things settled down again.

The Nivelle offensive –  16th Apr-9th May

The new French commander-in-chief, Robert Nivelle, believed that the Allies simply had not been offensive enough in the past, and that an all-out attack on the German lines would bring the war to an immediate end. He planned a huge offensive, with the main attack mounted by the French army to the south, supported by a British attack in their sector in the north.

He placed great faith in the new technique of the creeping barrage. In this, waves of artillery bombardment rained down just in advance of the attacking infantry. Under the right circumstances, this tactic was much more effective than the old system of laying down a barrage before the infantry advanced. Sadly, due to the “fog of war”, in the coming offensive the artillery sometimes rained down on their own troops.

The French launched their offensive along a 50 mile-front on the river Aisne. Over a million French troops would be involved. Unfortunately the Germans had got wind of it beforehand, and made sure that their men were well protected and that there were more than a hundred machine guns in place for each mile of front. This ensured that, when it came, the French attack was a grisly failure. 40,000 troops were lost on the first day.

The attacks continued, day after day. The maximum amount of advance made by the French was five miles. At one point the Hindenburg Line was breached, but only briefly. The cost was terrible. Eventually, the French troops’ morale began to crack. In April, mutinies begun to beak out within the French army (see below). In May the offensive was called off.

In the Nivelle offensive, as it was called, the French lost 187,000 men.

The Second Battle of Arras and Vimy Bridge

The British and Imperial troops were to support the main French offensive by attacking along their sector of the lines, which included the important transport hubs of Ypres and Arras. It also sat opposite the key target of Vimy Ridge, which, if it could be taken, would give the Allies a commanding position for miles around. Canadian troops was assigned this task.

On 9th April British and Imperial troops attacked. Over the next few weeks, in very heavy fighting, the Allies managed to take several square miles of ground. Above all, Canadian troops, with great courage and at enormous cost, took Vimy Ridge. A key part of the tactics used in this action was the use of tunnels for protection and for offense – tunnels were dug underneath the German trenches and then blown up, undermining the German positions.

Other notable actions were two Australian tank attacks on the village of Bullercourt. The first was a disastrous failure, as most of the supporting tanks broke down. The second attack was a great success, even briefly penetrating the Hindenburg Line at that point.

The British and Imperial troops lost more than 150,000, including 11,000 Canadians and 10,000 Australians.


A series of mutinies affected the French army in April and May. About half of all French units were affected, but most of these were minor affairs, ending when the officers of the units concerned promised to do their best to address the men’s grievances. Some of the mutinies were serious, and required firm measures. By early June all the units were back under control.

General Petain, the new commander-in-chief (Nivelle having been sacked), ensured that punishments were kept to a minimum – less than 50 men were condemned to death for their part in the mutinies, and fewer than these actually suffered the death penalty. Petain ordered that leave be properly given, on time and for the full duration owed. He made sure that food and conditions were improved. He also arranged that the French army was not used in any offensives until he deemed it ready again. The British would have to take the burden of the fighting for the time being.

A cloud of secrecy was thrown over the mutinies, and the Germans did not hear about them until later.

Messines Ridge 7th-8th June

In a short, sharp action, British forces captured the Messines Ridge near Ypres. This is a valuable piece of high ground from which to command the surrounding countryside.

There were three notable aspect to this action. First, it benefitted from meticulous planning and preparation. For example, over a period of several months engineers had dug deep tunnels under the German lines and crammed them with explosives. Second, it was characterized by excellent co-ordination between the infantry, artillery and engineers – all too often lacking in other operations. And third, a feature of the action was the continual forward movement of the attack. Instead of a short advance followed by a pause while the reserves came forward to take their place at the front, this attack was carried out as a virtually single advance, with fresh units taking their place at the front without the action stopping. This kept the momentum of the attack going, and prevented the enemy from regrouping.

This action was the first on the Western Front in which attackers’ losses (at 17,000) were exceeded by those of the defenders (24,000).

US troops landing

US troops started landing in France on the 25th June. The Germans were taken by surprise at how soon after the American declaration of war this occurred. However, for months to come American troops were present only in tiny numbers, and made no difference to the fortunes of the war.

Battle of Passchendale- 31st July-6th November

Encouraged by the success in capturing Messines Ridge, the British army launched a major offensive to break through the German lines opposite Ypres (the ensuing battle is also called the 3rd Battle of Ypres). The high command thought that the Germans were by now virtually out of fight, and could be driven out of Flanders in one big push. He also had the objective of reaching the Belgian coast and capturing the German submarine pens at Ostend and Zeebrugge.

By the time the offensive started, the Ypres region had been soaked in the worst rain for 30 years. The battlefield was one great sea of mud, which made life almost impossible for the attackers. The weather did not let up until September. The British, along with some French units, were then able to carry out a series of reasonably successful advances, again aided by creeping artillery fire.

However, the rain and the mud soon returned. Also, by now, German troops were arriving from the Eastern Front in large numbers (see below). Nevertheless a final push in late October succeeded in driving the Germans from the village of Passchendale. The Germans retreated behind Aisne-Oise and Ailette canals, and the Allied offensive then came to a halt.

Passchendale had turned out to be another enormously costly battle, with the loss of 250,000 men and only 800 yards of ground taken. The Germans had lost about 260,000.

Battle of Cambrai – 20th November-3rd December

Less than a month after the end of the Battle of Passchendale, the British mounted another major offensive. The aim was to take the town of Cambrai, a key transport hub for the Germans. This involved a multi-pronged attack involving infantry, artillery, air attack and, for the first time in history, massed tanks. The attack led to a temporary breach of Hindenburg line. However, by the end of the attack most of the tanks had broken down or were otherwise out of the action. German reinforcements, mainly of troops recently arrived from the Eastern Front, were hurried in to the fight and a counter-attack wiped out all the British gains.

The British lost about 44,000 in the battle, while the Germans lost 45,000.

(Continued in 1918)

The Eastern Front

The Russian Revolution

By 1917 acute war-weariness had set in in Russia. The number of Russian casualties stood at 5 million. Tsar Nicholas II had been an active Commander in Chief, and so had become closely associated with the failures of the Russian war effort. Support for tsar and the royal family had plummeted.

Revolutionaries-protesting-in february

Revolutionaries protesting in February 1917, (ru.wikipedia to Commons)

On 12th March, Revolution broke out in St Petersburg, the Russian capital. The following day the Tsar abdicated and a provisional government took over. In the wake of these momentous events, soldiers’ committees sprang up throughout the army, demanding peace.

In May, Alexander Kerensky, the new war minister, toured the front appealing for the soldiers to continue the fight. In July, the Russians launched another offensive, under general Brusilov. It was poorly supported and soon ground to a halt.

This failure lowered morale; soldiers coming up to the front refused to move any nearer to the war zone. During the autumn an estimated 2 million Russian soldiers deserted. Disorder spread in the countryside as deserters and peasants seized land from the landowners. Soldiers refused to obey orders and in the face of increasing unrest the government was unable to reassert its authority

On 7th November a second Russian Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power. Almost their first act was to sign an armistice with the Central Powers. Russia was now out of the war, and the Germans immediately began switching millions of troops from the Eastern Front to the West.

A peace conference began at Brest-Litovsk.

The Balkans


Fighting in Romania continued, even after the occupation of most of the country by the Central Powers. The fighting tied down large numbers of Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops.

The withdrawal of its ally Russia from the war, however, left the Romanian army isolated and surrounded. It had little choice but to seek an armistice, which was signed on 9th December.

Greece and Salonika

The Allied blockade and other military pressures on Greece led to the exile of the pro-German king, and the coming to power of a pro-Allied government in Athens. Greece declared war on the Central Powers, June 1917. Greek forces then began to join the Allied army in Salonika.

(Continued in 1918)

The Italian Front

This front saw more offensives in the Isonzo region, with the usual little effect. By now morale in the Italian army was very low, and sporadic mutinies were breaking out.

The Austro-Hungarians were reinforced by German troops, and at Caporetto on 24th October to 12th November, they routed the Italian army. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians pushed the Italians right back to the river Piave, just north of Venice. The Italians lost some 250,000 men killed, wounded and taken prisoner; another 400,000 men deserted.

On 4th November, British and French forces reached Italy and helped to stabilize the front on the river Piave. Further respite came for the Italians when, on 3rd December, the Austro-Hungarians and Germans suspended their campaign here. The Germans were eager to transfer troops back to the Western Front, preparing for a great offensive there in the New Year.

(Continued in 1918)


The Caucasus

Turmoil in Russia in the wake of the Revolution put a stop to all military operations. The Russian army began to slowly disintegrate.

The Turks used the situation to reposition some of their troops elsewhere, to Mesopotamia and Palestine. They were therefore unable to take advantage of the Russians’ predicament. Finally, an armistice was signed between Turkey and Russia on December 5th.

The situation in the Caucasus then deteriorated into anarchy, as the different nationalities asserted their independence. In this anarchy, Turkish troops, effectively beyond the control of the Turkish government, indulged in the widespread massacre of Armenians, who they blamed for their sufferings in the war and had come to view as their bitter enemies.

Sinai and Palestine

Having advanced across Sinai to Gaza, on 26th-27th March the British failed to capture that city. A second attempt on 17th-19th April also failed. After this, the two sides faced each other across a line of trenches, and engaged in raid and counter-raids, unable to break the stalemate.

The British finally succeeded in their third attempt to take Gaza, on 8th November. The Turks withdrew north, pursued by the British, who entered Jerusalem on 9th December. They had to fight off Turkish attempts to recapture the city until 30th December.


The Arabs launched a successful guerrilla campaign on the Jerusalem-Mecca railway, the main supply line for the Turkish army in the area.

On 6th July an Arab force, partly led by T.E. Lawrence, captured the Red Sea port of Aqaba. French and British naval forces helped secure the city from recapture, and brought much-needed supplies to the Arabs. From this base the Arabs then conducted raids of Turkish forces and transport lines in support of the British army in Palestine.


The British and colonial forces advanced up the river Tigris, and on 25th February recaptured Kut el Amara. On 11th March they entered Baghdad.

A large number of Turkish troops were captured, and the remainder withdrew upstream to Mosul.

The British and colonial forces remained in Baghdad, resupplying and reinforcing, and then resumed their offensive in the autumn. However, their commander, General Maude, suddenly died of cholera in November. This delayed the offensive for a while.

(Continued in 1918)

The War at Sea

On January 31st Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on Allied shipping. From now on no warning would be given, and any merchant ship, whether flying a British flag or not, was now fair game.


German U-boat U-14, (The library of congress)

Britain imported most of its food during the war – which meant of course that it came by sea. The Germans were now set on a determined attempted to starve Britain into submission by cutting off her maritime lifeline.

British merchant ship losses rose from 181 ships (300,000 tonnes) in January to 423 ships (850,000 tonnes) in April. By then, Britain had only 6 weeks’ supply of food left. Germany had lost only 9 submarines (or U-boats, as the German submarines were called).

In that month, the British adopted the convoy system – something they had avoided doing before because they felt it would be more of a hindrance than a help. However, shipping losses remained at a very high level – in May 600,000 tonnes, and in June 700,000.

As time went by, the British convoy escorts began to get the upper hand in the war against the U-boats. They adopted new techniques, employing hydrophones and depth charges against the enemy. Merchant ships were painted in camouflage colors to break up their outline and make them difficult for the U-boats to see.

These were soon proving their worth. By the end of 1917 one in four U-boats was being sunk, and British losses were half their former level.

(Continued in 1918)   Back to Contents


The German government demanded very harsh terms from the Bolshevik government, which was naturally reluctant to agree to them. The Russian negotiators (led by Trotsky) used delaying tactics, hoping that revolution might spread to Germany. However, in February the Germans lost patience, and began a new offensive in the east. This stung the Russians into agreeing peace terms.

On 3rd March Russia and Germany signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. By the terms of this treaty, the Russians surrendered the Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic provinces and Poland to Germany, and the Caucasus to Turkey.

The Germans had already been moving millions of men from the eastern Front to the Western Front; now they were able to move millions more.

The Western Front

With millions of troops now transferred from the Eastern Front, a massive German offensive began on 9th March. The aim was to knock the French and British out of the war before too many Americans had joined the fight. It broke through on the Somme sector.

The German Offensive

The offensive met with dramatic initial success. They employed new tactics, originally pioneered by the Russians: their best troops had been trained as “storm troopers”, so that they would not attack on a broad front, but at a few selected points. A short artillery barrage would be followed by an infantry dash through the enemy trenches to attack command posts and communication facilities such as bridges, supply dumps and artillery parks. They would thus break up the lines of trenches, and cause confusion. Further waves of troops would then consolidate the gains. These tactics succeeded in breaking the grip of the trenches and restoring mobility to the war.

The offensive began with a ferocious attack on the British on the Somme sector, the largest offensive in the entire war. The German objective was to drive a wedge between the British and French, and then turn on the British and defeat them. The French (it was thought) would then sue for peace.

The British and French fell back 40 miles. However, they quickly learned how to counter the new tactics: abandon the trenches being attacked, fall back and let the attackers overstretch their lines of supply; then counter-attack. They used tanks extensively as mobile gun posts.

The Germans took a huge amount of ground as the Allies retreated. But it was battle-scarred terrain, of little strategic value. The British and French concentrated their defenses on the major transport centers. In gaining this ground the Germans took as many casualties as they inflicted (in the course of the offensive, about a million on each side). They lacked the reserves of manpower to replace their losses. They began to call up boys under 18 and men over 50.

The British likewise began to bring in men over 50, and brought in troops from the Middle East. However, the Allies could also see hundreds of thousands of fit young Americans coming in to join the fight; by August, large numbers of American troops had arrived.

The Allied Counter-Offensive

Unable to keep their front line troops supplied quickly enough, the German advance had come to a halt by the end of June. To restart their advance the Germans launched one final offensive on July 15th, on the river Marne. American and British troops reinforced the French and the offensive was halted on the 17th. The next day the Allies launched a powerful counter-offensive. On the 20th July the Germans began to fall back, and by 8th August had retreated back to the starting point of their Spring Offensive.


German tank corps in France (between Aisne & Marne) in 1918 (Bild 183-R28717, German Federal Archives)

The Germans were given no respite. The Allies now began what was later known as the “100 Day Offensive”. They attacked the Germans east of Amiens, and opened up a gaping hole in the German front. Further Allied attacks forced the Germans back to the Hindenburg Line. In late September and early October a series of battles along the Hindenburg Line led to the Allies breaking through.

By now the Germans knew that the balance of the war had tilted decisively against them and that they had no hope of winning. On October 4th they asked for an armistice. The Allies continued to push the Germans back through Belgium. As the Germans retreated, they increasingly abandoned their equipment and supplies. Nevertheless, heavy fighting took place right up to the moment of the signing of the Armistice, on 11th November.

The Balkans

The Allied army based in and around Salonika, now reinforced not just be Greeks but by Czeck-Slovak troops from the now-defunct Russian front, began an offensive against Bulgaria in September (most German and Austro-Hungarian troops had by now been withdrawn from this theatre).

After initial tough resistance, the Bulgarian army began to retreat. Mutinies occurred amongst their troops, and the Bulgarian government asked for an armistice; this was signed on 29th September.

The French and Serbian forces continued heading north, while the British forces turned east, towards Constantinople, the capital of Turkey. As it approached, the Turkish government asked for an armistice. This was signed on October 26th.

Meanwhile the French and Serbian forces cleared Serbia of Germans troops, and by November 10th were poised to enter Hungary. At that point Hungary asked for an armistice.

The Italian Front

The Germans had pulled out their troops to take part in their Spring offensive on the Western Front. The weakened Austro-Hungarian army was soundly defeated at the Piave, 15th-24th June. Italian losses in the battle prohibited a decisive follow-up for some time.


Austrian prisoners of war taken during the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (Italian Army Photographers 1915-1918)

The Italians then heavily defeated the Austro-Hungarian army at Vittorio Veneto, 24th October-4th November. Immediately, the Austro-Hungarian army started to disintegrate. An armistice between Italy and Austria was signed on 4th November, and the Italians occupied northern Dalmatia.



The British and colonial forces were weakened by troops being withdrawn to Europe, to help counter the German offensive on the Western Front. As a  result, there was a few months pause in the campaign.

At this time, large numbers of Turkish forces were tied down in guarding railways and other key facilities from the attack of the Arab guerillas.

When the campaign resumed, the British defeated the Turks at the battle of Megiddo on 19th September; and on 1st October, the British entered Damascus. In this campaign, the British were given important aid by the Arab guerrillas, who shared in the capture of Damascus.

An armistice was signed with Turkey on 31st October.


After a long pause resupplying and reinforcing, the British and colonial forces in Mesopotamia resumed their offensive in February. They took Mosul on 30th October.

The War at Sea

British naval forces raided the German U-boat base at Zeebrugge, 22nd-23rd April. This was a very costly operation conducted with dash and courage, but achieved little.

In any case, the last few months of the war saw the British navy get on top of the German U-boat threat. 99% of all Allied merchant ships and their escorts were getting through to their destinations successfully.

In October the German high command ordered the fleet to put to sea for one final “do or die” attack on the British navy; however, the seamen of the fleet mutinied on October 29th. The German fleet surrendered to the British navy on 21st November.

The British kept up their naval blockade on Germany until the signing of the Versailles Treaty, in July 1919.

The End of the War

A summary of the ending World War I runs as follows:

On September 29th Bulgaria signed an armistice with the Allies.

An armistice between the Turks and the Allies was signed in Greece on October 26th, and in Palestine and Mesopotamia on 31st October.

An armistice between the Allies and Austria was signed on 4th November. By that date the Austro-Hungarian Empire was disintegrating as its constituent nations declared their independence.

On the 9th November Revolution broke out in Berlin, and the following day the Kaiser fled Germany for Holland.

The same day an armistice between Hungary and the Allies was signed.

On 11th November Germany signed an armistice with the Allies.

Last page of the Armistice agreement of November the 11th 1918. (Emeric84)

The same day the Austrian emperor abdicated.

A legal state of war existed between the Allies and the former Central Power nations for some months, when a series of peace treaties brought the war to a formal end.

The ending of World War I was accompanied in many countries, including Russia, Germany and Turkey, by political upheaval, civil war, economic disruption and social chaos, and a flu pandemic which, striking weakened populations, killed many more people worldwide than the war had done.

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