The Course of the First World War

The First World War began with plans for rapid victories. It degenerated into a stalemate of mud and blood that lasted four long years.

An unimagined tragedy

Very few people really understood how industrialization would change warfare. Mechanized weapons led to a much deadlier battleground.

War plans

Each country thought it was well prepared for the First World War. Military leaders that railroads would make everything happen faster.

From mobility to trenches on the western front

The first big battles of the war were in the west, where German invaded Belgium and France. Germany’s invasion of Belgium brought Britain into the war. The Allied armies made up of British, Belgian, and French soldiers were slowly pushed back until French reinforcements arrived.

Quickly it became clear that in this new warfare defenders who were positioned in trenches had a big advantage over attackers. These entrenched defenders used modern machine guns, which put out large quantities of bullets and led to heavy casualties for the attacking army. Slowly the whole battlefront in the west became a series of trenches, and trench warfare became a symbol of World War I.

The war beyond the Western Front

When the Russian Army arrived at the front lines, it proved effective against the Austro-Hungarian forces. The Russian troops facing Germany, however, became surrounded by enemy forces.

The Ottomans joined Germany and the Austro-Hungarians, forming the Central Powers. The Ottomans became embroiled in battles against British forces in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Italy also entered the war hoping to win back territory that had been claimed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Italy was soon bogged down in the Alps mountains.

Japan entered the conflict on the side of its ally, Great Britain. Its modern navy conquered German colonies in China and the Pacific. In Africa, British and French forces attacked German colonies. Most of the fighting in Africa was actually done by African soldiers.

Attempting to break the stalemate

By the middle of 1915, the war was stuck. Modern weapons led to little movement. The armies settled down in exhaustion and built better defenses to stop attackers. One strategy became to make the attacks even bigger, causing more casualties.

Another strategy for breaking the stalemate was to force an opponent to withdraw from the war. The British, for example, thought they could break down the Ottoman Empire by occupying the capital of Constantinople. This attack failed.

Both sides also tried to damage each other economically. The British fleet tried to stop any goods from going into Germany, and largely succeeded over time. The Germans tried to use U-boats to strangle the British economy. Convoys and new technology slowly diminished the efficiency of the U-boats.

Russia and the Americans

The Russian army suffered some bad defeats and the Russian economy was in shambles, contributing to the Russian Revolution. The new revolutionary government stayed in the war. When the communist Bolsheviks took power, they withdrew from the war.

Just as the Russians left, the United States entered the conflict. American troops began to arrive in the summer of 1917, bringing a needed morale boost to their allies.

By late 1918, the Central Powers were in retreat almost everywhere. In October, parts of the German navy began to revolt. A new government came to power in Germany, determined to end the war. On November 11, an armistice was signed between the victorious Allies and Germany.


Everyone hoped this four-year long conflict would be “the war to end all wars.” Of course, it was not.

Source: The Course of the First World War
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