At the beginning of the twentieth century, Europe was controlled by a series of alliances that served to check any one power from becoming too large. These alliances had worked for a number of decades, and there had been little in the way of warfare on the continent. However, competition existed among the powers, especially in colonial development. In particular, Germany’s desire to have more colonies and a correspondingly larger navy put it in direct competition with the British Empire. Meanwhile, innovations in shipbuilding meant that early twentieth-century naval ships were both faster and possessed of more firepower than at any time in history.
The Ottoman Empire was disintegrating due to military losses prior to the war and the push for nationalism within its borders. The same drive toward nationalism occurred in Austria-Hungary. People of different nationalities wanted to live in their own independent nations rather than being forced into an empire that did not serve their needs. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb in June 1914, it caused Austria-Hungary to undertake a war against Serbia, which it blamed for his death. This war drew in Serbia’s ally Russia, and Austria-Hungary’s ally Germany. Treaty and alliance obligations then brought more countries into the conflict.
In the first months of war, the invasion of Belgium painted Germany as the aggressor nation, and fierce fighting through Belgium and northern France forced civilians to evacuate. With the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, a system of trench warfare was established on the western front. On the eastern front, Russian troops were poorly equipped and poorly trained and therefore experienced heavy losses. The United States planned to maintain its isolationist foreign policy and continued trading with both sides in the conflict, but Britain’s naval blockade of German ports meant that U.S. trade with Germany was somewhat limited.
World War I introduced many new technologies seen in warfare today—tanks, machine guns, long-range artillery, and airplanes. Most troops found themselves under constant threat of bombardment, injury, and death, and the casualties and destruction of total war were enormous. The large empires fighting in the conflict brought troops from their colonies and dominions to fight. Fighting also took place outside Europe, across other continents such as Asia and Africa. Despite the diversity of the forces engaged in the war and the common cause espoused by each side, numerous examples occurred of racial prejudice and discrimination in the decision-making and activities of the war.
The war was so all-encompassing that governments had to find new ways to manage the supplies and support for the war, usually by taking tighter control of industrial output through new legislation. Women entered new types of work such as munitions manufacture to fill the gaps left by male workers now fighting in the military. Those on the home front found themselves confronting food shortages and sometimes civil unrest as people began questioning their government’s competence to fight the war. Such questioning was often met with harsh penalties. Other political challenges also arose, such as the Irish Nationalists striking out against British rule in the 1916 Easter Rising.
In 1905, the Russian people rose in rebellion after the government’s killing of peaceful protesters. Tsar Nicholas II allowed the creation of a legislature called the Duma, but he was still not ready to share power with the people. The tsarist government was unable to mount a successful war effort, however, and the tsar was forced to abdicate in 1917. The Bolshevik Revolution led by Vladimir Lenin the following year brought promises of peace, land, and bread to the Russian people.
In 1918, with Russia exiting the war, Germany threw its armies into action in the west, but food shortages and general unrest in the Central powers meant that early victories could not be sustained. The arrival of U.S. troops in mass numbers in Europe helped propel Allied victories by the second half of 1918 and pushed Germany to the brink of collapse. The abdication of the Kaiser and an armistice with a new civilian government in Germany brought an end to the fighting in November.