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World War One WWI 1914 - 1918 - Introduction

Introduction

The two opposing sides;  Germany + Austria/Hungary  against  France + Russia + Britain

In more detail:

The Aggressors;

The Central Powers or “Triple Alliance”; The name given to the combined forces of:

  • Germany + Austro Hungarian Empire + Ottoman Turkish Empire

Actually Italy was the original third member but they swapped sides and later the Islamic Ottomans joined to take their place.

The Defenders:

The Allies or the “Triple Entente”,  The name given to the combined forces of:

  • France +Belgium +Serbia +Russia + Britain and the British Empire including notably;  Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India. Also the Ottoman Arabs in Arabia and Iraq (then called Mesopotamia), plus Japan and after 1915 Italy and then in the last four months the USA

The original three in the “Triple Entente” were France, Russia and a reluctant Britain.

FAQs  

A few facts to answer many of the questions normally asked:

Did Britain need to go to war?

Many say no but they forget Britain’s vital oil supplies from Iran which were vulnerable to the Central Powers particularly Germany. It was mainly a war between Germany plus her ally the old and dying Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburgs) Empire versus France and Russia.

Britain went to war in Europe, because it had a “Gentleman’s agreement with France and neutral Belgium which the Germans used to march through, as their best route to Paris. Britain also needed to defend their oil wells in Iran (Anglo Iranian petroleum company), which fuelled the Navy and was eyed by the Germans for similar reasons. As soon as the Ottoman Turks joined the war the need for Britain to defend the Persian Oil Fields and the Suez Canal, which was the gateway to both the Oil fields and India, was vital.

Numbers

At the start of the war Britain’s forces in France and southern Belgium (Flanders) amounted to only 3% of their French Allies. The Brits having no UK based standing trained army of any size, and with the need to fight in two theatres simultaneously, they had to ship native Indian forces from the subcontinent (and later Chinese volunteers) to augment their western European troops. Indians from the Sub-Continent initially outnumbered the native Brits. The Brits were also quickly supported by troops from both Australia and New Zealand who became known as the Anzacs plus forces from Egypt which was then a British Protectorate, where Britain was responsible for training an army and such things as education and their legal system. Egyptian troops were mainly used in the Middle East. In general none of these Empire troops needed to be asked twice to support their Mother Country.

Trench Warfare

Most of the photos of the battles show both sides dug into deep trenches. Why was this? Once the modern breach loaded rifle and particularly the machine gun had been invented with their devastating human killing capacity, defending armies adopted the technique “of digging in” or digging a hole in the ground to protect themselves from incoming fire. With the further development of the rapid fire accurate field gun, (cannon and howitzer) the “digging in” process became even more important. World War 1 was the first major conflict where both sides deployed these weapons. The first 3 months of the war the German Army was marching so fast towards Paris that the defenders had no time to dig themselves in and the only thing that stopped the Germans from taking Paris and immediately winning the war was running out of ammunition and other supplies as motorised military road transport had not been invented. Armies marched; except for some lucky rich who brought with then their personal Rolls Royce or Mercedes Benz. Other officers would ride on horses. The French (and British) could stop the Germans from entering Paris because being in their own country they could bring up reinforcements by train. The French also commandeered all the Paris taxis to do the same thing. Once this was done the French and British drove the Germans back towards the German boarder until the Germans dug in at easily defended vantage points. Very rapidly two continuous parallel trenches were dug starting at the boarders of Switzerland and ending by the sea in the English Channel just north of Calais and Ostend. In all some 450 miles. In spite of trenches the French Generals and other French officers initially could be seen charging towards the Germans on horseback with swords drawn, yelling at the top of their voices and dressed for the convenience of the German gunners in colourful jackets and trousers.  The French had really not thought through the concept of modern war fair. Daily deaths at this time during these blind charges, particularly amongst officers, far exceeded the numbers later reported when full trench warfare had commenced. German trenches were much more sophisticated, comfortable and better appointed than the Allies as the Germans always assumed they were going to defend from the same position for much longer. The British trench engineering however became very sophisticated in the second half of the war as they used coal miners to dig tunnels under the German lines to blow them up.

Animals

This war was the last to use Horses to carry officers and pull field guns. Also Dogs to carry messages. The animals were trained to keep working even with shells exploding around them. Animal casualties were in the millions and both sides had to buy replacement horses from all over the world. In later wars men were carried in petrol or diesel trucks and a few of course in Tanks.

The Eastern Front

Trenches were not much used on either the Eastern front between Germany and Russia or in the Middle East. On the Eastern Front which was almost 1000 miles long and extended from the eastern Baltic near Latvia via modern day Poland and Ukraine to the western end of the Black Sea in Rumania(Romania now). The army densities were much lower allowing for a more fluid Front. In the Middle East in the desert arab areas there were no trenches other than at Gaza but the Turks in Gallipoli (Western Turkey) had time to dig themselves in and easily defended themselves against the British, Indians, Egyptians and Anzacs.

Deaths

Casualties during the First World War were horrendous. How bad were they?

Mass casualties may be an indication of the attitude (or the stupidity) of those in charge of the lives of those lower ranks on the Front Line. However although this was certainly the case to some degree the main reason was that the machine gun and trench warfare made defence fairly safe and attack suicidal.

Compare with today:

In WW1 450 British soldiers were killed on average per day during the 4 years of the war. In Afghanistan approx 450 British soldiers were killed over the whole of the 12 year conflict.

World War 1 also saw the first example of mass genocide when the Muslim Ottoman Turks exterminated some 1.5 million Christian Armenians living in the north of Anatolia who they feared would join the Christian Russians. In all some 9 million people perished during the 1st World War. But remember some 6 million Jews were exterminated in death camps by the Germans and the Russians in World War 2. Also in the latter war nobody is sure how many millions of his own people Stalin exterminated at the same time.    

What was the outcome of this war?

World War 1 Changed the face of Europe and the Middle East like at no other time before or since. Both the 400 plus year old Austro Hungarian and the Islamic Ottoman Empires ceased to exist. Germany became much smaller loosing much of East Prussia which was given back to the Poles. The majority of British school children of today would not even recognize these names. In the Middle East new countries were created by the conquering powers England and France with the blessing of the League of Nations; including Iraq, Syria, Jordan, modern Saudi Arabia and eventually Israel.

The Russian Empire also collapsed. The Russians faired so badly that the citizens of St Petersburg starved so the peasants plus the Bourgeoisie (intellectual middle class and businessmen), who had suffered such terrible casualties, revolted, assassinated the King (Tsar) and created a socialist  republic under the Communist leader Vladimir  Lenin.  The beaten Germans were forced by France to pay for the war which ruined their economy and caused Germany to rise again and occupy France only 20 years later in the so called Second World War.