This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Vida Systems, now available on Google Arts & Culture
Pressure mounted and finally, after the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, war broke out.
This war was different than any other war in history - the combination of regional conflicts and revolutionary advancements in warfare left an unprecedented 20,000,000 people dead and shook the world.
Breakout of War
Given the complex, tangled web of alliances in Europe in the early 1900s, also known as the “powder keg of Europe,” any 2 nations from opposing factions declaring war on each other would turn into a continent-wide contention.
The Austro-Hungarian alliance officially annexed the Serbian-populated territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which angered the Serbian kingdom and its powerful ally Russia.
Conflicts mounted until a Serbian assassin, Gavrilo Princip, shot the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in public. War followed soon after.
The Triple Alliance
A coalition headed by Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy, Germany Kaiser Otto von Bismarck wanted to prevent a war on 2 fronts. He enlisted the aid of nations adjacent to Germany in case conflicts ensued with France in the west or Russia in the east.
The Triple Entente
This coalition headed by France, Russia, and the UK was in response to Bismarck’s creation of the Triple Entente. Historians think that the alliance system between these countries seemed threatening to the Triple Alliance, and contributed strongly to the mounting tensions.
Southeast European countries torn by conflict leading up to the world war included Bosnia and Serbia. Serbian Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand publicly, which effectively started the chain of events of World War I.
The Battlefields of Europe
The battles in Europe lasted long years and under horrific conditions. The German army advanced west to invade France and Belgium, while Russia advanced on Germany by attacking Eastern Prussia.
This time period saw a great many advancements in land-based military tactics and technology, which contributed to the massive death toll of soldiers.
Because of advancements in artillery firepower and small arms, infantry units needed to shelter themselves effectively under the ground’s surface. Hence, trench warfare was born. Soldiers would spend weeks to months in the trenches, in grueling conditions with terrible hygiene.
The first world war saw early models of tanks. With plating to protect their crew from enemy fire and their own heavy firepower, tanks were meant to end the slow crawl of trench warfare. The early tanks, however, were quite mechanically unreliable.
Despite the Treaty of Hague banning chemical weapons, countries from both sides used chlorine gas and phosgene to kill soldiers in trenches and beat back the enemy. Mustard gas was the most infamous, burning exposed skin and killing its victims from the inside.
The Middle Eastern Theatre
Battles did not just stay in Europe, they spread like fire to the Middle East. In the Middle East, The Ottoman empire allied with Germany to recover territories it lost in previous wars.
The British also had valuable oil fields, and they sought to defend the precious resources from German and Ottoman attacks alike. The fields of battle were vastly different and local forces were enlisted to aid both the British and the German/Ottoman armies.
It was essential to use camels as mount animals in the arid lands of the Middle East, as they were able to survive long periods without water, unlike horses. They also had the advantage of being less nervous than horses in the face of gunfire.
The British oil fields in the middle east were valuable for supplying the Royal Navy and other British vehicles in the war efforts. These fields became a point of contention, as German and Ottoman armies tried to seize them and block their supply.
Local Middle Eastern groups helped the war efforts on both sides. The British army was assisted by Armenians and Arabs, while the joint Ottoman/German army was helped by Kurds, Turkomans, Iranians, and other groups in the area.
Fire in the Skies
Battles didn’t only take place on the ground; some fighting took place in the skies as well. The technological advancements of the late 1800s and early 1900s pushed forth new uses for aircraft: as scouts, bombers, and fighters to take down other planes.
World War I was the first war where these newly purposed aircraft saw a great amount of action, and it set the precedent for how wars would be fought in the future.
The Germans predominantly used Zeppelins for scouting the movement of enemy troops. Because of their placement high in the air, they had a wide field of vision that could encompass where the enemy was and its movements.
Originally employed for scouting, these planes were eventually fitted with machine guns able to take down enemy aircraft. An arms race for air superiority ensued, focused on making the most effective fighter. Thus, air warfare was born.
Ground troops were also employed to stop air fighters dead in their tracks. The British developed “archie,” a weapon that shot artillery rounds that explode in the air, releasing smoke and fragmentation that could damage planes.
Fighting in the Seas
Major fighting also took place in the waters, and the battles had significant impact on the war’s outcome. British and French naval forces maintained a blockade to confine the German, Italian, and Ottoman forces.
In response, the Germans developed their own navy and submarines, called U-boats, to break the blockade. An important benchmark of U-boat usage was when the Germans took down RMS Lusitania, killing 138 American passengers.
The deaths of American civilians eventually pushed the US to enter the war and help the Entente nations win.
Leading up to World War I, there was an arms race between European nations for naval superiority. It started when British HMS Dreadnought was released. The ship was so massive and had so much firepower that people started categorizing older ships as “pre-dreadnought,” and obsolete.
These submarines were extensively used by Germany to break blockades and destroy reinforcement ships crucial to their enemies’ war efforts. The U-boats, however, were most effectively used to destroy commerce ships, causing damage to enemy economy with their long-range torpedoes.
Mines were heavily used by both sides of the combatants. The Germans used mines to sink merchant and commerce ships that were traveling towards Britain, while the British and their allies employed mines to destroy German U-boats that had been raiding their ships.
Aftermath of War
The Entente nations decisively won the war by 1918, but the war’s damage was still felt on both sides. World War I did not claim more casualties than wars before it, but the numbers were still staggering. Aside from death and injuries suffered by soldiers and civilians, the central powers had to pay reparations.
The war’s cultural impact was also significant, as famous works of literature on the futility and carnage of war were written, such as All Quiet on the Western Front by German veteran Erich Remarque.
Artillery shelling, explosions, and bombings from the air caused massive damage to buildings and large areas of cities during the war. Air raids in particular targeted factories, but many still missed the mark and damaged civilians and their housing along with other infrastructure.
17 million died and 20 million were wounded in World War I, ranking it among the most catastrophic wars in history. Sadly, the 17 million deaths weren’t all from combatants, 7 million of them were civilians. Entente nations lost more civilians and military forces.
Because of the amount of death in wartime, often there is no time for proper burials. Mass burials with large amounts of people in a ditch that were the norm then are a horror today. Currently, we are still discovering mass burial sites where battles took place.