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World War I and the Peace that Failed

The soldier stood on the muddy “fire step” that reached, shelflike, the length of the deep trench. It was too dark to see his tired, mud-smirched face or to judge how old he was. He wore a steel helmet or “tin hat” and the khaki coloured blouse, pants and spiral leggings of the British Expeditionary Force. The barrel of his Enfield rifle rested on the top of a sodden sandbag. Tensely he crouched, his head thrust forward and turned slightly to the right, the better to hear with. His squinting eyes bored into the foggy gray of pre-dawn light.

If he only knew what was out there in the hundred yards of shell-pocked “no mans land” between the British and the German trenches! Had he heard the rasping sound that a man’s leather boots make as he crawls along the ground? Had he heard the dull plunk which meant another strand had been cut in the barbed-wire entanglement that zigzagged in front of the trenches? Was a German wiring party out there cutting a path for German troops to use to launch an attack on the British?

Nervously his hand gripped tighter the stock of his rifle. Why didn’t the fog lift and the daylight come? He shook, partly from the cold and partly from nervousness. He was hungry and tired, too, but he had his job to do.

Nations throughout the world lined up on opposing sides in World War I.

This was the kind of fighting that took place in World War I, when Allied and German forces pinned each other down in deeply dug trenches. There was little of the open-held charging of earlier wars or of the rapid, slashing sweep of tanks that was to take place in World War II. Instead, World War I was mostly a war of position. The opposing armies occupied trenches and dugouts where the soldiers slept and ate. For weeks and even months the monotony of endless watching across deadly no man’s land was broken only by night raids and fitful gunfire. Then attacks would come, opened by heavy waves of artillery bombardment. These so-called barrages were meant to smash enemy trenches and forces. The attacking troops would then surge “over the top” and across no man’s land into a hail of bursting shrapnel and machine-gun fire. Perhaps attackers might gain only a few yards, or at best a few miles though German advances were rapid at the beginning of the war and both sides made large gains shortly before its close.

1899 A.D. – 1931 A.D.

Such, in brief, was the story of World War I along the western front of Europe from 1914 to 1918. During these same years the struggle was going on along other fronts and on the seas. More important to students of history than the fighting, however, were the causes and effects of this world conflict. Time and again previously, for example, we have learned about important changes which took place in one part of the globe or another as a result of World War I. Here we seek answers to these questions:

1. Why did World War I take place?

2. How was World War I fought and won?

3. What did the peace settlement accomplish?

1. Why Did World War I Take Place?

World War I did not spring suddenly out of events in 1914. The real causes go much farther back. As a result of the tensions and mistakes of many years, in 1914 the great nations of Europe were lined up on two sides. Each side was heavily armed. Each was jealous, suspicious and fearful of the other. Under such conditions it did not take much to start a fight.

The peoples of the world had not tamely resigned themselves to war. Had the world, then, done nothing whatever to prevent war? That would be putting the case too strongly. Recognizing war as the greatest curse of mankind, wise leaders in almost every country had tried in various ways to prevent war. To some extent they had succeeded.

1. Some methods had been worked out for settling disputes between nations. It is true there was no way to compel nations to keep the peace. There were ways, however, by which international disputes could be settled peaceably if the countries involved were willing to use them. One method was by direct agreement between opposing parties. France and Britain used that method to settle their quarrel over the Sudan. Another method was to put the matter up to arbitration. By this method the disputing nations agreed in advance to accept the decision of a board of umpires or arbitrators. Great Britain and Venezuela had settled the dispute over the Venezuelan boundary by arbitration. A third method was to call upon several great powers to act “in concert” in working out a compromise. Such a group of powers meeting at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 decided how the map of Turkey should be redrawn.

2. The Hague Court was established to settle international arguments. Another attempt to promote world peace grew out of Hague Conferences of one and a half centuries ago. Nicholas II, the Czar of Russia, became worried over the growing cost of armies and navies. So he urged the calling of an international conference to (a) get nations to agree to reduce the size of armies and navies, (b) create ways and means to settle international disputes peacefully and (c) establish certain rules, of war, that all nations would obey. This conference met in 1899 at The Hague in the Netherlands. In 1907 a second peace conference was held at The Hague, at which 44 nations were represented.

Practically nothing was done at these conferences to stop the growing cost of armies and navies, but certain rules of war were adopted. The nations agreed, for instance, not to use poison gas in warfare and to follow certain rules for the treatment of wounded prisoners of war. In addition a Permanent Court of Arbitration was established at The Hague. The Hague Court was intended to help in settling international disputes which nations might be willing to present to it. The Court, however, could not compel nations to present such disputes. Nor could the Court require nations to accept its decisions. For instance, when Russian warships sank some British fishing boats during the Russian-Japanese War, the Hague Court determined the amount of damages to be paid by the Russian government. Had Russia refused to pay, the Hague Court could have done nothing.

3. During the early 1900’s there were organized movements for peace. The peace movement showed itself in other ways besides the Hague Conferences and the Hague Court. Certain European working-class parties opposed international war. Some very rich men, too, worked for peace. Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy American steel manufacturer who had been born in Scotland, built a “palace of peace” for the Hague Court. The Swedish inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, left money for a prize to be given each year to the person judged to have done the most for peace, as well as other prizes for outstanding authors and scientists. Moreover, many writers warned the world of the danger of a general war. They pointed out that war was wicked and costly. Peace organizations of many kinds grew in number. Pacifists, that is, people opposed to settling international disputes by war under any circumstances, became more numerous.

The nations of Europe divided into two opposing alliances in World War I. (1) Name the Central Powers. (2) Name The Allied nations at the time of the outbreak of the war. (3) What nations joined the Allies later in the war?

The spread of nationalism pulled nations into war. The many efforts toward peace were not powerful enough to check the forces making for war. One of these forces was national feeling. During the 1800’s and 1900’s nationalism had become a stronger influence than ever before. As we know, it spurred many peoples to fight for the unity and self-rule denied them by great powers or by selfish rulers and statesmen, but nationalism sometimes led people to risk wars in order to satisfy pride. They wanted to be able to say, “My country is the biggest and the most powerful in the world. My country is right.” National pride made statesmen unwilling to admit mistakes or to compromise in order to avoid serious trouble.

The struggle for colonies increased the danger of war. Imperialism also increased the threat of war. Many people accepted the idea that a great colonial empire made a nation not only more powerful but more prosperous. Yet the size of the world, like the size of a pie, is limited. As nations carved out colonies for themselves, there were fewer and fewer areas left for other nations to take. The same was true of spheres of influence. The result was increased jealousy and tension. To be sure, the nations of Europe had divided up Africa without causing a general war, but land grabbing in the Sudan and Morocco had almost started a war. Rivalry over special rights in China actually did lead to war between Japan and Russia and the partition of Turkey’s empire caused several conflicts during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

International law was not effective. Peace and order are impossible without rules that are understood, accepted, and obeyed. This is just as true of the world of nations as it is for a single country. Yet international law had not developed to the point where it could prevent strong nations from bullying weaker neighbours.

There were laws within each nation to punish murder, theft and other crimes; and there were police and courts to enforce them. These were national laws, but international law consisted merely of customs and treaties. Each nation did more or less as it pleased. If a government chose to break a custom or to violate a treaty, what could be done? For that matter, if there were no police or courts in America, what could you do to protect yourself against thieves? Why, lock your door, of course and buy a revolver! That is what each nation did. It locked its doors with forts and built up its army and navy.

National rivalry led to an armament race. As black clouds pile high just before a thunderstorm breaks, so did armies and navies increase just before World War I. Germany decided to build a great fleet to compete with Great Britain’s. The British answered by increasing their own navy and moving their biggest ships to the North Sea, onto which some of Germany’s chief harbours opened. Increases also took place in armies. France, Germany and Russia greatly enlarged their armies in the months before the outbreak of fighting in 1914. Each increase in armaments ships, men, or guns-alarmed rival nations and caused them to strengthen their own military forces. A vicious circle of war preparations resulted. Fear caused greater military preparation and greater military preparation increased fear.

Alliances added to the threat of war. To these forces making for war — national pride, imperialistic rivalry, and the race for armaments must be added still another, the system of opposing alliances. By the early 1900’s, Europe was split into two rival military alliances. One was the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. The other was the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia. The Triple Alliance, was started by Bismarck in 1882 to make Germany more secure. He was able to persuade Austria-Hungary to join because of fear of Russia and Italy because of anger at France. Left by itself, France sought an understanding with Russia and Great Britain, convinced by 1904 that the chief threat to its world position was Germany, patched up differences first with France and then with Russia.

The line-up of nations, however, did not stop here. Japan had a special alliance with Great Britain. This alliance tied the Asiatic and Pacific world more closely to European happenings. Moreover, the smaller European states were grouped around the great powers. Turkey, from fear of Russia, was pretty sure to side with Germany. On the other hand, because of hatred of Austria, Serbia was certain to side with Russia. Nations, great and small, were so tied together that if war should come anywhere, it was bound to affect many countries.

The assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria touched off a war that flashed through Europe. This photograph of the Archduke and his wife was taken shortly before the assassination.

International crises increased tension between the two camps. The mere fact that rival alliances existed tended to make every international dispute a trial of strength between the opposing sides. A few examples will make this point clear.

1) In 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Balkans, but Russia received nothing. This was a victory for the Triple Alliance.

(2) France got a free hand in Morocco in 1911, but Germany got only some less valuable land in tropical Africa. This was a victory for the Triple Entente.

(3) The Balkan Wars (1912-1913) led to a new crisis and deepened the jealousy between Austria-Hungary and Russia.

If European nations had used arbitration and the Hague Court more frequently, war might perhaps have been avoided, but instead, strong national pride led them to depend on alliances and on the threat of force, or “power politics.” Year by year jealousies between nations grew and the chances of preserving world peace dwindled. The time to stop a great war is long before it starts. When a war once begins, it is like a landslide or avalanche. It gathers so much momentum that nothing can stop it. The landslide in 1914 began in the Balkans.

The assassination of Francis Ferdinand started World War I. On June 28, 1914 the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was murdered in Sarajevo. This city was the capital of the province of Bosnia which Austria-Hungary had seized from Turkey against Serbia’s will.

The assassin was a young Bosnian who sympathized with Serbia. He believed he was striking a hero’s blow at a foreign tyrant, but what he did was to start a world war which killed nearly ten million men instead of one. His deed gave the Austrian government an excuse to crush the troublesome Serbs once and for all.

Austria immediately sent an ultimatum to Serbia. By ultimatum, or “last word,” one nation says to another, “Accept our terms, just as they stand, or we will attack you.” This ultimatum was very harsh. It demanded (1) that Serbia apologize for the anti-Austrian feeling that led to the Archduke’s assassination, (2) that the Serbian government punish any persons involved in the plot, and (3) that Serbia take steps to crush all anti-Austrian activities in Serbia and remove all anti-Austrian officials from government service. The Serbs were given only 48 hours to make up their minds. They accepted the terms of the ultimatum except a demand that Austrian officials be allowed to take part in the investigations. Austria insisted that failure to accept all terms meant that Serbia had turned down the ultimatum, so Austria declared war.

Austria’s action alarmed the great powers. A war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia would, of itself, be a small affair, but both countries had supporters. Behind Serbia stood Russia, champion of the Balkan Slavs and bitter enemy of Austria-Hungary. Moreover, France would probably stand by Russia. On the other side Austria-Hungary had a powerful ally in Germany. Knowing that Russia might interfere, Austria had been careful to ask and receive from Germany a promise of support before sending the ultimatum to Serbia.

Great Britain suggested that Austria and Serbia settle their differences by conferences or other peaceful means, but Germany said “No” to all proposals to interfere between Austria and Serbia. Meanwhile Germany tried to get Russia and Austria to agree not to fight each other. Russia, however, discovering that Austria could not be talked out of attacking Serbia, began to mobilize; that is to say, Russian armies were placed on a war footing so that they could strike quickly.

Germany declared war. Russia’s mobilization brought Germany into the war. The German military experts said: “We must fight now. If Russia fights, its ally France will fight too and we shall have war on both our eastern and western boundaries. Our one advantage is that Russia is a large country without enough railways to mobilize quickly. If we can crush France before Russia is ready, we shall win. If we wait until the Russian army is on our frontier, the odds will be against us.” The German Kaiser believed his experts and declared war on Russia. When asked what it would do, France replied that it would defend its own interests. Germany took that to mean that France would support its ally Russia, just as Germany was supporting Austria-Hungary. So on August 3, 1914 Germany declared war on France.

Germany’s invasion of Belgium brought Great Britain into the war. Meanwhile the British government had been anxiously watching war clouds spread over the horizon. There was good reason for Britain to take sides with France and Russia against its chief rival for world power, Germany. Nevertheless British statesmen hesitated. “The lights are going out all over Europe,” said one of them sadly. Then German armies swarmed into helpless Belgium, a small state whose neutrality had been guaranteed by the great powers. This deliberate violation of an international agreement roused public opinion in Britain. Furthermore, Britain for centuries had stoutly opposed letting the North Sea coast of the Low Countries fall into the hands of any major power. On August 4, therefore, Great Britain declared war on Germany.

Kaiser William ll here confers on military strategy with the top German generals of World War I. General Paul von Hindenburg points out a military target, while the Kaiser and General Erich Ludendorff watch.

Italy remained neutral at first. Only one of the more important European powers failed to enter the conflict in 1914. This was Italy. It is true that Italy was allied to Germany and to Austria-Hungary (the Triple Alliance), but the Italians said that theirs was a defensive alliance only. Since Austria had begun the war, Italy declared that the alliance did not apply. In 1915, however, the Italians entered the war against Austria-Hungary. Italy hoped to acquire the areas in western Austria which were Italian in language and background. Italians called this territory “unredeemed Italy,” thereby suggesting that it really should belong to Italy.

World War I spread. Other nations were drawn into the conflict. Japan, as Britain’s ally, attacked the Germans in the Pacific islands and on the coast of China. Little Montenegro threw in its lot with Serbia. At a later period of the war, Portugal, Greece and Romania also joined the alliance against Germany. The combined group came to be known as the Allies. Germany and Austria-Hungary were less successful in winning recruits, gaining only Turkey and Bulgaria. These 4 nations were commonly called the Central Powers. The Spanish, Swiss, Dutch and Scandinavians managed to keep out of the war entirely.

Who was responsible for World War I? In the peace settlements at the close of World War I, defeated Germany was charged with the guilt of causing the conflict. Certainly some nations were more responsible than others for the events immediately leading to the outbreak of war. Austria-Hungary bore heavy responsibility for refusing to arbitrate its quarrel with Serbia and Germany for supporting Austria with armed forces. By wholeheartedly backing Serbia, Russia extended a Balkan quarrel into a European war, but in the underlying causes imperialism, national pride, the race for armaments and secret alliances all the major European powers shared responsibility.

2. How Was World War I Fought and Won?

World War I was a new kind of war. The nations which rushed so blindly into war in 1914 underestimated their enemies. They thought in terms of a brief though bloody conflict like the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. They had not reckoned with the changes in warfare which modern science had brought. For one thing, this was the first war in three dimensions — in the sky as well as on land and sea. Of course, airplanes were not so numerous, fast, or powerful then as they are today. In fact, they were more like box kites than like modern airplanes. Airplanes were more important as scouts, mapping and photographing the enemy below them, than as bombers. Nevertheless, by the closing years of the war they were playing a new and important role.

World War I introduced other new fighting weapons. France and Belgium had relied on forts of steel and concrete to hold back the first onrush of the enemy, but the Germans had a surprise ready: huge siege cannon which smashed forts as a hammer crushes a hazelnut. Toward the end of the war, the Germans had also a special cannon which bombarded Paris from a distance of 70 miles and because plain earthworks were just as effective as costly forts in stopping the German advance, Allied soldiers fought, slept and ate in trenches. To take trenches protected by barbed wire and machine guns, the British invented the “tank” which could move over rough ground because it was built like a tractor that runs not on wheels but on moving steel belts.

Chemists, as well as engineers, had surprises for the world. In 1915, regardless of the rules of warfare, the Germans used poison gas. The first gas used was chlorine, a yellow-green gas which the wind rolled in heavy clouds along the ground. Unfortunately for the Germans, a puff of wind might send it in their direction! Later in the war, both sides fired shells containing poison gases at enemy lines. Mustard gas, which burned with lasting effects, came into wide use.

How evenly were the two sides matched? All the advantages appeared to rest with the Allies — Great Britain, France, Russia and the other countries on their side. Their population, armies and resources were greater than those of the Central Powers — Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Moreover, the Allies had command of the seas and could trade with all neutrals. Allied navies cut Germany off from America and other overseas markets.

Yet the Germans had good reason to feel confident early in the war. Their army, though not quite so large as that of the Russians, was far more efficient. The Germans had to fight on both the east and the west, but they had magnificent railroads to shift soldiers wherever they were needed. For this reason, on the active fighting fronts they usually had as many men and guns as their opponents. Britain, on the other hand, had to get its food and supplies from overseas sources and troops of the British Empire had to come from such distant parts of the world as Australia, India and Canada. Moreover, Russia was almost completely bottled up. The German fleet closed the Baltic Sea, while Turkey’s mines (underwater explosives) and shore cannon closed the Black Sea. Hence aid could reach Russia only by roundabout routes through the Arctic or the Pacific Ocean.

Germans conquered Belgium and northeastern France. The Germans won another advantage by their sudden swift drive through Belgium, Luxemburg and northeastern France. Desperate French forces stopped the German thrust in September 1914 just short of Paris at the Marne River, but the Germans had already occupied an area where there were many factories and large supplies of coal and iron. France was badly hurt by this blow. It was as if some enemy had suddenly seized the heavily industrialized part of the United States which extends from Boston to Pittsburgh.

In western Europe trench warfare lasted three and a half years. After the rapid German advance had been halted, both armies dug in on the western front. The longest line of trenches ever known extended from Switzerland to the North Sea. The dull though dangerous routine of french life was varied by an occasional drive. Then front-line trenches might change hands as a weak spot in the opposing line was taken, but behind the front trenches there were other lines to which the enemy could retreat. Though losses were heavy, there was no slashing break-through or clear-cut victory.

A British secret weapon, the tank, was soon adopted by other nations fighting in World War I. This wrecked tank had been captured by the Germans and used against the French.

Germany held the advantage on the eastern front. On the eastern front the war swung back and forth over a much wider area than in the crowded region of Belgium and northern France. The battleground was chiefly Poland, or rather those districts of Russia, Austria and Prussia where Polish was spoken. In those days, there was no independent state of Poland.

Very early in the war the Russians invaded Galicia (Austrian Poland) and German East Prussia, but both drives were soon slowed down. Though the Russians seized most of Calida, the Carpathian Mountains prevented them from invading the plains of Hungary. The Russians had barely entered eastern Germany when the Germans, led by General Hindenburg, defeated them in a great battle in the swamps around Tannenberg.

In 1915 Germany made a powerful counterattack, driving the Russians out of Russian Poland. Then the war in the east, like the war in the west, bogged down to the deadlock of trench warfare. Neither side seemed able to strike a telling blow, but the Russian armies were running low on guns and ammunition. Russian factories could not keep up with war needs and Russia’s allies could not send enough supplies. By 1917 Russia was in a critical condition.

There were several other theatres of war. Besides the western front (in France and Belgium) and the eastern front (from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains) there were some lesser war zones. (1) When the Italians entered the war in 1915 on the side of the Allies, they attempted to invade Austria, but their drive stalled in the eastern Alps. (2) Turkey held its own against British and French ships and soldiers that tried to force the opening of the narrow straits leading to the Black Sea. The Turks also defeated a small British force in Mesopotamia. (3) In the Balkans, troops of the Central Powers overran Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and northern Greece. Romania, which had joined the Allies in 1916, had to fight on its own soil against a German led invasion. A year later Romania was forced to give up.

Against all these setbacks the Allies could point only to a few victories outside Europe. Japan took possession of German-controlled ports, on the Chinese coast and the German-owned Pacific islands north of the equator. Australia took over the German portion of New Guinea and New Zealand the German portion of Samoa. French and British forces occupied practically all the German colonies in Africa.

By 1917 the war seemed to have reached a deadlock,  but in that year two important events took place. One was revolution in Russia. The other was the entrance into the war of the United States on the side of the Allies. How did these two events influence the course of the war?

German troops charge across a heavily bombed field in France. The torn-up earth and broken trees of this battle scene vividly suggest the terrible destruction of war.

Revolt broke out in war-weary Russia. For years there had been deep dissatisfaction with the Russian Czar’s government among all groups of his subjects. When World War I broke out, there was a brief wave of patriotic enthusiasm, but by 1917 Russian losses and defeats caused the Czar’s government to be more unpopular than ever. Ugly rumours, some true and some false, put the blame for defeats on high officials.

In March 1917 revolution broke out. Owing to a breakdown of the railway system, towns and cities were short of food. When food riots broke out in the great cities, the disheartened soldiers often joined forces with the crowds against the police. Feeling rose to such a pitch that the Czar gave up his crown and became a prisoner. A moderate Socialist named Kerensky eventually got control of the temporary government that was set up.

The Russian Revolution failed to revive Russian war effort. The Western nations hailed the revolution in Russia. They felt that the Russians would fight harder now that they were free from the Czar’s tyranny. Kerensky’s government thought so too and urged the Russian army to push back the invading Germans, but the common soldier had had enough of war. Badly armed, badly fed and often badly treated, he was less interested in victory than in bread, peace and land. When the Russians suffered new defeats, discontent increased.

The Communists took over control in Russia. A radical group of the Socialist Party refused to support Kerensky’s middle-of-the-road government and its policy of continuing the war. This group, the Bolsheviks, became known later as the Communist Party. The Bolsheviks acted quickly and ruthlessly. In November 1917 they seized control of the government. When elections to a national assembly went against the Bolsheviks, they showed their contempt for democratic government by turning the assembly out of doors with bayonets.

Russia accepted peace terms. Once the Bolshevik leaders gained control of Russia, they made plans to withdraw from the war. Early in 1918, in the Russian town of Brest-Litovsk, they accepted Germany’s terms. Germany received a free hand to reorganize Finland, Lithuania and the Baltic provinces, Russian Poland and the Ukraine. In addition, Russia was to pay a huge sum in war damages.

Although the Russian people no longer faced outside foes, they still had no peace within their own country.

The United States first adopted a neutral attitude. Russia’s withdrawal from the war benefited the Central Powers, because Germany no longer had to fight on two fronts, but the entrance of the United States into the war on the side of the Allies in 1917 was to prove tremendously important in bringing about the final defeat of Germany.

After Italy entered the war in 1915, the United States was the only great power which still remained neutral. While the tramp of soldiers and the thunder of guns filled most of Europe, Americans tried to follow President Wilson’s advice to remain neutral “in fact as well as in name.” Even a neutral country, however, has troublesome war problems. The United States, was drawn into the War of 1812, partly because both England and France had disregarded American neutral rights on the high seas. Now, a hundred years later, warring nations again interfered with the freedom of the seas. This time the offenders were Great Britain and Germany. Bit by bit the British extended their list of war goods subject to seizure until it included almost every article that Germany would want to buy from the United States. Even goods sent to neutral countries, such as Holland, were seized on the ground that they were to be sold to the Germans later.

The British could do all this because they held command of the seas and their warships could stop and search neutral ships. The German fleet, although it fought one major battle of Jutland in the North Sea, was bottled up for most of the war. So the Germans turned to submarines to keep goods and supplies from reaching England. The only way submarines could operate effectively was to strike unseen and unexpectedly, without making an attempt to rescue the people in the sinking ship. To be sure, sinking ships without warning and without attempting to save the crew and passengers was against international law, but because some of the things the British were doing were illegal, the Germans claimed they were justified in using submarines against merchant vessels.

Allied forces halted the German advance in 1914 only a few miles from Paris. Notice how much territory the Allies had regained by November 11, 1918. What nations counterattacked in 1918?

Submarine warfare led to a break between the United States and Germany. In 1915 a German submarine torpedoed the British liner Lusitania without warning.

Nearly 1200 persons, including more than a hundred Americans, lost their lives when the vessel sank. The American people were both horror-stricken and angry. British violations of neutral rights had affected their property, but the German submarine campaign was taking lives. Many Americans thought the United States should enter the war, but President Wilson still hoped to protect American rights by peaceful means. He sternly warned the German government that the United States would not put up with such treatment and Germany agreed to limit submarine warfare, but the hope for peace was short-lived. Early in 1917 Germany announced that it would resume unlimited submarine blockade of the British Isles, the French coast and other Allied shores. This meant that German submarines would attack, without warning, all Allied and neutral ships. The United States promptly broke off relations with Germany and began to arm merchant vessels in self defense. 

On the seas submarine warfare played a significant part in World War I. Here a German submarine crew fires at an English freighter.

Other conditions pushed America toward war. Submarine attacks were not the only reason why Germany and the United States came to blows and because Germany was cut off by the British blockade nearly all american trade with Eutope went to the Allies. By 1917 the Allies owed hundreds of millions of dollars to American bankers and manufacturers. Due to the blockade, too, most information Americans had about the war (much of it true but some of it false) came from Allied sources. Deeper, however, was the growth of certain feelings among the American people. There was sympathy for the democratic nations on the allied side and a growing belief that Germany and Austria-Hungary were only responsible for the war. There was also concern lest Germany in winning the war might control the Atlantic and threaten the United States. To cap the climax, news leaked out that Germany had secretly offered Mexico a return of Texas and land lost in the Mexican War if Mexico would join Germany in case of war with the United States.

World War I plane

The United States threw its might into the Allied cause. In April 1917, President WiIson declared that the United States must “fight for the ultimate peace of the world and liberation of its people. . . . The world must be made safe for democracy.” After a short debate, Congress voted for war by large majorities. Although the United States had been slow to enter the conflict, the country went “all out” in its war effort. Compulsory military service was put into effect almost at once. Fleets of ships were  built and huge armies were trained for European battlefields. Farmers and businessmen boosted production and the American people contributed huge amounts of money through the purchase of war bonds. By the spring of 1918 hundreds of thousands of men of the American Expeditionary Force, led by General John J. Pershing, were in France. Not only was America’s great might hurled against the Central Powers, but its example led other countries to enter the war. China and Siam in Asia, Liberia in Africa and about half the Latin American republics declared war against Germany, though few of these countries took an active part in military operations. Truly this had become a world war.

Land fighting in World war I was carried on chiefly from trenches and dugouts. The American soldiers manning this machine-gun nest are on the alert for enemy troops.

The German submarine blockade failed. Germany had gambled heavily on the submarine blockade, hoping to starve Britain out of the war before America could make its strength felt on the western front. At first Germany succeeded in sinking shipping far faster than ships could be built, but cargo vessels and troopships, using new routes and traveling in convoys groups protected by warships — reached Allied ports in growing numbers. Destroyers and submarine chasers hunted down submarines with depth bombs that exploded under water. By early 1918 the submarine blockade had failed.

Germany launched a last drive in 1918. One chance remained to Germany. Not only had Russia been forced to make peace, but the Italians had been driven back. Germany could throw its entire army against the British and French lines on the western front. If these lines could be broken before American troops arrived in great numbers, Germany would be Victorious. So, in the spring of 1918, the Germans launched their last drive toward Paris. The French and British lines were bent but not broken. American troops were rushed to the front in growing numbers and all the Allied armies in the west were placed under the command of Marshal Foch of France. (A marshal is a general of the highest rank.)

The tide turned in favour of the Allies. By midsummer of 1918 the fury of the German thrust had been spent. Then the Allies began a counterattack which lasted through the summer and autumn. American soldiers, familiarly called “doughboys” just as soldiers in World War II were known as “G.I.’s,” fought valiantly. The chief battles in which Americans took part were at Chateau-Thierry, Saint-Mihiel and the Argonne Forest. America’s resources and man power turned the tide of battle against the Germans. After their allies gave up, one by one, the exhausted Germans asked for an armistice, or truce. Actual fighting ended November 11.

The war left a wrecked Europe. For the peoples of all the world, but especially of Europe, the war was a catastrophe. About thirty nations, with a combined population of more than four-fifths of the entire population of the world at that time, had engaged in it. They had raised armies of 65 million men — half again as many people as there were in all of France. More than 8 million men a number exceeding the total population of Belgium — had been killed. Twenty million had been wounded and crippled about as many as the combined populations of the world’s five largest cities. Millions of civilians had died of hunger and disease. A plague of influenza had struck among neutral as well as warring nations all over the world in 1918. In addition to these human losses the war had cost in direct expenses nearly 200 billion dollars $118 for every man, woman and child then living in the world.

This was by no means all. World War I was followed by cruel revolutions and tyrannical dictatorships, as well as by quarrels among nations. New wars were to spring from the ashes of World War I in spite of efforts toward world co-operation and peace.



Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated at Sarajevo, June 28

Major powers declared war, August

Germans stopped Russian advance in the Battle of Tannenberg, August

French halted German advance on Paris in the Battle of the Marne, September


Trench warfare slowed down the war on western and eastern fronts.

Germany began submarine campaign against British naval blockade.

German submarine sank the Lusitania.

Italy joined the Allies.

Turkey defeated British attempt to open the Dardanelles.


German and British iieets fought a drawn battle of Jutland.


United States joined the Allies, April

Communist revolution led to Russia’s leaving the War, November-December


Allies halted a last, all-out German drive on Paris, July

.‘Armistice ended the fighting, November 11


Treaty of Versailles signed.

3. What Did the Peace Settlement Accomplish?

Peacemaking was a difficult task. World War I ended so suddenly that no nation was ready with a well-worked-out plan for peace. Moreover, the war presented the peacemakers with difficult problems, such as redrawing the map, determining the cost of war damages and trying to find a way to preserve peace in its future. Nevertheless, the Peace Conference which met in Paris in 1919 had before it several proposals and agreements that had been made while the war was still being fought. Most important of these was President Woodrow Wilson’s statement of fourteen basic war aims.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points were the background for the Armistice. In January 1918 the war was still raging. Yet to President Wilson it seemed a good time to state clearly just what the United States and its allies were fighting for. He felt that such a statement would clear the air and prevent confusion and despair among the Allies. So in an address to Congress Wilson proposed his famous “Fourteen Points.”

When the Germans realized that they could not win, they agreed to end the war on the basis of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The Allies, however, called for two changes in the Fourteen Points: (1) The question of freedom of the seas must be left open for further discussion. (2) Germany must pay “for all damages done to the Civilian population of the Allies and their property by the aggression of Germany by land, by sea and from the air.” This is what the Allies meant by reparations payments. So the Fourteen Points, with these two changes, became the basis for the peace, but these points were too general to be more than a framework for planning the peace. They did not, for example, tell just where new boundaries should be drawn or how a new “association of nations” should be organized.

Secret treaties and changes made during the war had to be considered. Before the United States entered World War I, the Allies had made certain secret agreements among themselves. Italy, France, Great Britain, Russia, and Japan had been promised certain gains if they won the war. These agreements were not in line with the Fourteen Points. Moreover, actual conditions had changed during the final months of the war. Many of the national groups within Austria-Hungary, for example, had already won their independence. The Poles had seized territory along Russia’s western border. Russia had made a separate treaty of peace. The German Kaiser had fled to Holland at the close of the war and a German Republic had been proclaimed in place of the German Empire. Both the secret war agreements and these new developments added to the peacemakers’ problems.

In a speech to Congress in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson outlined Allied aims in World War I. Among Wilson’s “fourteen points” were principles of international justice on which he hoped to build a lasting world peace.
The Fourteen Points
There shall be no private international understandings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas . . . in peace and in war…
The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations. . . .
National armaments will be reduced. . . .
Adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon . . . the principle that . . . the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the . . . claims of the government whose title is to be determined.
The peoples of Austria-Hungary . . . should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous [independent] development. . . . An independent Polish state . . . should include the territories inhabited by . . . Polish populations. . . .
A general association of nations must be formed for . . . mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike. . . .

The victors dictated the peace. Several months passed before the delegates to the Paris Peace Conference could agree on what terms to present to Germany. The really important decisions were made by an inner circle representing Britain, France and the Unired States, although Italy had some voice, too. Then the Conference sent for Germany’s representatives and told them to “sign on the dotted line.”

The German representatives protested. What, they asked, had become of the Fourteen Points? Why should Germany be singled out as the nation that started the war? How could Germany ever pay the reparations bill that the peace treaty said they must pay? The Allies, however, yielded on only a few points. In other words, the peace treaty with Germany, signed in June 1919 in Louis XIV’s magnificent palace at Versailles (and therefore called the Treaty of Versailles), was a dictated peace treaty.

Later, separate treaties were made with Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. None of the defeated nations were to build up strong armies and navies. In addition, Germany was to build no forts on the Rhine River or in Germany west of the Rhine. An Allied Army of Occupation was stationed in western Germany to see that Germany obeyed.

How did the Peace Conference of 1919 – 1920 compare with the Congress of Vienna? In certain respects the Paris Conference differed from the Congress of Vienna when the map of Europe was redrawn following Napoleon’s defeat. Kings and nobles ran the Vienna discussions in 1815. At Paris after World War I, however, the three most prominent leaders were men who had been elected to public office. England’s Prime Minister David Lloyd George was a lawyer brought up in a shoemaker’s home. Premier Georges Clemenceau, known as “the Tiger of France,” was by profession a writer and editor. Woodrow Wilson, a college professor, had been president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey before he became President of America. In other words, at the Versailles conference the elected representatives of the people, not autocrats and noblemen, took charge. A century had certainly changed the way much of the world was ruled!

The kings and noblemen at Vienna in 1815 redrew the map of Europe according to the idea of “legitimacy.” They decided that rulers were to get back what they had lost during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1919 the key word was “self-determination,” meaning that people everywhere were to choose the kind of government they wanted. Of course, neither “legitimacy” nor “self-determination” was applied in every case. In 1919, as in 1815, some decisions were made to satisfy powerful countries, but the Paris Conference at least showed how peoples’ ideas had changed as to what a peace settlement ought to be.

The “big four,” leaders of the four major Allies, conferred at Paris. From left to right are Orlando of Italy, Lloyd George of Britain, Clemenceau of France and Wilson of the United States.

The victors drew a new map for Germany. The map shows you what lands the war cost Germany. Alsace and Lorraine were restored to France, from which they had been taken in 1871. The rich Saar valley with its coal mines was to be under international control for fifteen years. Then the people in the Saar were to vote whether to join France or Germany. (In 1935 they voted to join Germany.) The northern part of Schleswig, which Bismarck had taken from Denmark in 1864, was restored to Denmark in accordance with a vote of its people.

Germany lost much more land on its eastern borders, as the map shows. A small area went to the newly created country of Lithuania. A new independent Poland got back from Germany large areas that had once been part of the old Polish nation. Part of what Poland obtained was the so-called “Polish Corridor” connecting inland Poland with Danzig on the Baltic Sea. Notice on the map how this Corridor cut Off eastern Germany (East Prussia) from central Germany, but Danzig itself was to be an independent city, neither Polish nor German.

All the German colonies were taken over by the victors. According to plans made during the war, Great Britain, France and the Union of South Africa divided German Africa. Japan, Australia and New Zealand divided German possessions in the Pacific, but the nations which took over these colonies were only trustees, not owners. They held mandates from the new League of Nations to manage these colonies and had to report each year to the League how they had performed their duties as managers.

The map of eastern Europe underwent considerable change as a result of the terms of the peace treaty. (I) What new nations appeared in the territory lost by Russia? (2) What terrifories did Germany lose? (3) How was Austria-Hungary split up?

Vast changes took place in eastern Europe. After the war and the peace settlements, the map showed far greater changes in eastern Europe than in western Europe. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, disappeared completely. Some of its territory was awarded to two established countries, Italy and Romania. The remainder went to five new countries: Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

The new kingdom of Yugoslavia included not only parts of former Austria-Hungary but also two hitherto independent states, Serbia and Montenegro. Romania obtained nearby districts from Russia and Hungary where many of the people were Romanians. To Greece went Bulgaria’s coast and ports on the Aegean. Turkey was able to hold on to Constantinople and the key waterway it controlled; and also to keep Asia Minor, but the Turks lost the rest of their territory in Asia.

Russia lost much more territory and population than did Germany. Unlike Austria-Hungary, however, Russia did not vanish from the map. Indeed, so great was the area of Russia that the lost territory amounted to only a small fraction of the total. Five new countries, all republics, appeared in regions that Russia had ruled before World War I — Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Self-determination, though far from complete, gained ground. These new nations and boundary changes showed that the principle of self-determination had made some progress. Finns, Estonians, Letts, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs and Slovaks, Romanians, Italians and southern Slavs who had been subject to foreign rule now had governments of their own choosing. Never in recorded history had political boundary lines so closely followed boundary lines of areas inhabited by people of similar background.

The division of peoples according to nationality and language, however, was not complete or perfect. Mixed in with Czechoslovakia’s Czechs and Slovaks were about 4 million Ukrainians, Germans, Magyars and others. Yugoslavia’s Croats and Serbs, though Slavs, quarreled among themselves. In Poland there were many Germans, Lithuanians, White Russians and Ukrainians, as well as the Poles themselves. In Italy’s new territory were many Slavs and German Austrians. In short, self-determination not only was not, but could not be, complete. In all these countries, as before, there were national minority groups, but these minority groups were smaller.

Germany received but did not pay a huge reparations bill. The Allies, you Will recall, had revised the Fourteen Points to include reparations for war damage suffered by civilians. How much was to be paid, when and how? The victors appointed a commission to find the answer. When it reported, the commission set the total at over 31 billion dollars. Since this was a huge sum, Germany was to pay it in installments over a number of years. Moreover, payments could be made with coal and other products as well as in cash.

The reparations plan did not work out to anyone’s satisfaction. The German people did not want to go on paying other countries for a lifetime. The French claimed that the Germans were evading payments and that the cost of restoring parts of France damaged by Germany, therefore, was being paid by Frenchmen. The problem of German reparations, moreover, was closely tied in with Allied war debts. Without German payments, France was unable to pay back money borrowed from Britain. The Allies also argued that until Germany paid them, they could not pay the 10 billion dollars they had borrowed from the United States.

During the 1920’s two new plans were drawn up, with American help, to settle the reparations problem, but the worldwide depression of the 1980’s put an end to reparation payments by Germany as well as payments of war debts due to the United States from the Allies. Little Finland alone kept up interest payments during those years. World War II ended any lingering hopes for payment of World War I debts.

Peacemakers created the League of Nations. One of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, you will remember, called for forming a “general association of nations.” Wilson believed that without such an organization of nations there could be no permanent peace. Due largely to his efforts, a “covenant” or agreement was inserted in the Treaty of Versailles which provided for a League of Nations.

The League of Nations was to have its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The victorious Allies and most of the neutrals were invited to join the League at once. Defeated countries were kept waiting, but could be admitted later if the League members voted to invite them. Russia was also kept waiting because its new government had not yet been recognized by other nations.

How was the League of Nations organized? The work of the League of Nations was to be carried on by certain bodies. Five great powers — Britain, France, Italy, Japan and our own country were to be permanent members of the League Council. (Actually, the United States did not join the League.) Four representatives of smaller nations were to be on the Council, but for shorter terms. All member nations, large or small, were to have equal representation in the Assembly which handled the ordinary or routine business of the League. There was also a secretariat, or office force, to carry on the League’s work between Council and Assembly meetings.

Besides the Council and Assembly, there was to be a Permanent Court of International Justice. This court, called the World Court for short, was to handle questions of legal rights arising between nations. For example, if one nation had a boundary dispute with another, the World Court would study old maps and treaties to decide which claim was the right one. The Council and Assembly of the League, on the other hand, were to settle political disagreements that might lead to war. Suppose, for example, that two nations wanted the same colony. This disagreement would have to be settled by statesmen instead of judges, because it was a matter of national interest, not simply legal right.

The League could take steps to preserve peace. The chief duty of the League was to maintain peace. Each member state promised to “respect and preserve against external aggression the territorial integrity and political independence” of the other members. The Council or Assembly could take into consideration any disagreement between nations that might cause war. Member nations were to agree that they would not go to war until there had been time for the League to act, but if a nation did go to war, then the League could ask member nations to apply sanctions. This meant that member nations would neither buy nor sell goods nor lend money to the aggressor nation. In extreme cases, the League was to ask member nations to use force against aggressor countries.

The league did some tasks well. The League of Nations came into existence in 1920. Many people have called it a failure because it did not prevent World War II. Such critics, however, overlook the useful work done by the League. (1) The League combated epidemics of disease. (2) It restricted the opium trade. (3) It supervised the many colonial mandates. (4) It governed the free city of Danzig and the Saar. (5) It helped war prisoners and refugees to return home. (6) It attempted to improve working conditions in many parts of the world, but in its main purpose, that of keeping world peace, the League was not a great success, though it did settle several important international disputes.

The League was only an agreement between sovereign states. One cause of the League’s weakness grew out of its nature. As its name implies, the League was a union of independent member states which reached its most important decisions by unanimous agreement, just as a jury does. The League had no army or navy to enforce its will. In a word, this new international organization itself could not make any government behave; it could only offer its member nations a chance to work together to keep peace and oppose aggression.

League membership changed. Another reason for the League’s weakness was the fact that it did not include all nations. The United States, for example, never joined the League of Nations, in spite of all that President Wilson could do. There were several reasons, the chief one being fear that the United States might be dragged into European quarrels against its will. During the 1920’s Germany joined the League and in the 1930’s Russia was a member for a brief time. Japan, Germany, and Italy dropped out of the League. Russia was expelled from the League because it attacked Finland. By the late 1930’s only Britain, France and a number of smaller nations remained members. It seemed that nations could co-operate to deal with small problems that concerned them all. When great international issues arose, however, nations either would not or could not co-operate within the League’s framework.

Efforts to limit armaments failed. The race to build larger and more powerful armies and navies was, one reason for wars. Germany and its allies had been partly disarmed after World War I. Would the rest of the world reduce its armaments? In 1921 the great naval powers of the world sent representatives to Washington to discuss this matter. They set the strength of the three leading naval countries — Great Britain, the United States and Japan — in proportions of five to five to three. This meant that for every five tons in big warships that Britain and the United States could have, Japan was to have not more than three. In the next group came France and Italy. They were to have little more than half of the naval strength of Japan. No other nations had navies of much size.

A conference held at London in 1930 reached a similar agreement concerning smaller naval vessels such as light cruisers and destroyers. As the 1930’s wore on, however, hopes for a warless world dimmed. In spite of its promises, Japan began building up its navy. Germany not only built its famous “pocket” battleships (small vessels with a big ship’s guns and destructive power); it also enlarged its army. So other nations also began to re-arm. In short, efforts to reduce armaments failed.


Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland – Formerly parts of the Russian Empire (Poland also included German and Austrian Territory.

Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia – Formerly parts of Austro-Hungarian Empire (Yugoslavia also included Serbia and Montenegro).

Peace by treaty agreements was sought. Other attempts to keep peace by European nations and other countries were made during the 1920’s. One was the Locarno Pact (1925). By this treaty Britain, France, Italy, Belgium and Germany agreed (1) to keep peace with each other and (2) to maintain their existing boundaries. A more ambitious attempt at keeping the peace was the Paris Peace Pact (1928). This agreement pledged the nations signing it to settle all international disputes by peaceful means. Most of the world’s nations agreed to it. They had nothing to lose, for they promised to keep the peace unless attacked. Japan was the first nation to break this peace pledge in the early 1930’s.

It was perhaps a hopeful sign that for a few years following World War I, nations were willing to consider an end to all wars, but the means they devised to keep the peace were imperfect. During the 1930’s leaders arose who ignored agreements calling for peaceful settlement of international disputes and promises to reduce armaments. In short, the various peace efforts proved powerless to halt aggressor nations. Under such conditions the world moved relentlessly toward World War II.

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