The war that began in 1914 was called the Great War for many reasons, including the tremendous loss of life, the widespread physical destruction in Northern France and Western Russia and the political collapse of five major empires during and after the war. It is also commonly believed that the war planted the seeds for World War II.
The immediate cause of the First World War was the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914. (The details of what happened on June 28th read like a tragedy/comedy of errors.) The underlying causes of the war, though, included an intense international arms race and ideas of national honor and prestige prevalent in Europe by the start of the twentieth century. There was also the long simmering Franco-German rivalry (since the German victory over France in 1871), Russian-Austrian confrontation in the Balkans (dating back to Austria's threatened intervention against Russia during the Crimean War in 1855), Anglo-German tensions about overseas colonies (since the Congress of Berlin in 1885 and then the start of Germany's navy) and Russo-German rivalry over Poland (since the eighteenth century). These tensions all lay buried beneath the peaceful surface of European diplomacy waiting to explode. In 1914, they did.
It is difficult to quantify the enormous impact that the war had on Europe. The war destroyed most of the economies in Europe and left the U.S. as chief creditor nation to the world. (After the war, Great Britain owed America $3.7 billion, France--$2 billion, Italy--$1 billion. The total was over $7 billion owed to the U.S.) But to some things no price tag could ever be attached. It is not wrong to simply say that an entire generation of men lay dead on the battlefield. The numbers (very approximate) are especially horrible. Military casualties: 8.5 million killed, 29 million wounded or missing. There were 6 million German casualties versus 5.5 for France, which had a significantly smaller population than Germany. To put these numbers into further perspective, the French had mobilized 8 million men. Of these, 1.5 million were killed and 4 million wounded, i.e., about 3/4 were casualties. Of all Frenchmen between the ages of 20 and 32, 1/2 had been killed during the war. That entire generation of young men could not be replaced.
The Great War left Europe in a shambles and fundamentally altered the political balance-of-power on the continent and in the world, although that was not immediately recognized. In addition, the social and economic structures of the Western world emerged profoundly changed with, for example, the emergence of a women's rights movements as a result of the economic role played by women during World War I. In some countries, such as Germany and Italy, recovery from the war never really happened before World War II broke out. In other countries, such as Russia, the war led to the emergence of a radical, revolutionary regime whose communist ideology later had a worldwide impact. The Marxist revolutionaries in Russia had long hoped to topple the tsarist regime; the enormous cost of the war to Russia provided the Bolsheviks with the opportunity to seize power and create a new type of government.
While I could list this site below, I felt that the home page of the American Battle Monuments Commission deserved some mention here. Among the many preservation duties of the Commission is the charge to maintain twenty-four cemeteries for over one-hundred-and-twenty thousand U.S soldiers who died overseas during World War I and then World War II. Please have a look and remember those who have served. My uncle, who was washed overboard in the Pacific in November 1942, is listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the West Coast Memorial in Presidio, California.
Some recommended online lectures and websites
- History of the First World War
- At Boundless World History, see the section on World War I.
- Wikibooks: World History (Causes and Course of the First World War and the Effects of the First World War)
- World War I: Trenches on the Web
- First World War.com
- The World War One Document Archive; especially valuable is the part of the site that lists Links to Other WWI Sites (it is a huge list.).
- The British Library's World War One (Explore over 500 historical sources from across Europe, together with new insights by World War One experts)
- 1914-1918: The Great War and the Reshaping of the Twentieth Century is a PBS companion website to the programs produced some years ago. It is very well done.
- BBC's World War One site has a variety of primary sources available dealing with the Great War.
- The Long, Long Trails: The British Army of 1914-1918 (for family historians)
- 9 Poets (of World War) has works from nine poets who fought in the war. See also The First World War Poetry Digital Archive.
- Material on the Armenian Genocide is online from the Armenian National Institute.
- The Gallipoli Association dedicated to the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16.
- The Museum of New Zealand has a number of online collections devoted to the Great War.
- Photos of the Great War: World War I Image Archive
- Eyewitnesses to History materials on World War I
- Lou's Trench website on WWI has some interesting and unusual facts about the war.
- Year-by-year timelines
- World War I Political Cartoons gallery
- The Library of Congress Guide to World War I Materials, including audio recordings
- Joseph Schiesl, student in HIS 112, has a great narrated prezi on Front Line Medicine in World War I.
- For extra credit please suggest to your instructor a relevant website for this unit of the course. Send the title of the site, the URL and a brief explanation why you find the information interesting and applicable to the material being studied in this unit.