The Great War - Unit Study
- Friday, August 18, 2006
What happened at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918? What war was labeled the war to end all wars and the Great War? All too often World War I is eclipsed by World War II, but to fully understand the latter, the former must be studied because they are connected in many ways.
Before the Great War, Europe was a continent of powerful countries all vying for supremacy as world leaders. Fearing to be overshadowed, they formed strong alliances with other countries to increase their power. Great Britain, France, and Russia formed the Triple Entente and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy made up the Triple Alliance. The strength of these alliances was tested when the heir of the Austria-Hungary throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 24, 1914. Bosnia, a province of Austria, wished to either be an independent country or ruled by their neighbor, Serbia. In Bosnia a terrorist group called the Black Hand plotted to kill the Archduke Ferdinand, and it was one of their members, Gavrilo Princip, who succeeded in carrying out the plan. Clearly Serbia influenced the assassin, and the infuriated Austrian government sent an ultimatum to Serbia demanding they comply with ten points to avoid war. Although Serbia agreed to most of the demand they refused the two most important. Seeking assistance, Serbia appealed to their mighty friend, Russia. On July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia. This action set off a chain of events; Russia declared war on Austria, Germany declared war against Russia on August 1, and two days later on France, an ally of Great Britain. On August 4, German troops marched across neutral Belgium on their way to France, bringing England into the war. When the battle lines were drawn up there was Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey on the Central Powers side and Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Italy, Montenegro, Serbia, Japan, China, Portugal, Romania, and Greece on the Allied Powers side.
The United States watched for nearly three years as Europe tried to destroy itself. Wisely President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed America a neutral country. Since immigrants from all parts of Europe lived in America there were groups who sympathized with both sides. Seeing the Central Powers' aggressive tactics in Belgium, the United States allegiance began moving in the direction of the Allies. This was heightened when a German U-boat torpedoed a British passenger liner, the Lusitania, on May 7, 1915. Nearly two hundred Americans were on board and over a hundred of them died, including millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. Outraged, America demanded justice. Germany, however, was able to appease the United States for the time being by promising not to sink passenger ships in the future.
For a time America's anger subsided. The war brought prosperity to the U.S. as the farmers and factories made goods to sell to Europe. America sold $3 billion worth of supplies and food to Britain, $1 billion to France, and $383 million to Germany.
In January 1917, the Germans began their U-boat attacks on neutral ships. Another event which helped end America's patience was the "Zimmermann telegraph." The British intercepted a note from German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican President. In the note the Germans promised to return parts of the southwest that Mexico had lost during the Mexican War if Mexico would promise to enter into the war against the U.S. in the event America declared war on Germany. The American people were irate! Although President Wilson loved peace and had fought to keep the U.S. out of the war, he addressed Congress on April 2, 1917, asking them for a declaration of war. On April 6, America entered World War I.
A new mode of warfare greeted the American soldiers. Many improvements had been made in machinery. Successfully the Germans used the U-boats (unterseebooten, meaning underwater boats) to destroy unsuspecting ships. Aircraft were also new to the scene. At first airplanes were used for observation, but soon they became a new weapon. With a machine gun strapped to the front, pilots would engage in battles called "dog fights." The public loved the idea of brave pilots fighting in the sky and preferred those stories instead of the truth about life in the trenches.
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