The Great War - Unit Study
- Amy Puetz Contributing Writer
- 2006 25 Aug
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.
Both sides had dug an extensive network of deep trenches in the ground. Instead of being a war of attack it was one of defense. Running from the English Channel to Switzerland, the Western Front was nothing more than a line of trenches. Life in the trenches was terrible, many times soldiers were up to their knees in water, and rats, lice, and other vermin were their constant companions. The area between the opposing sides' trenches was known as "no-man's-land" and anyone venturing into that area was mowed down with machine gun fire. In April 1915, the Germans used a new weapon, poison gas (chlorine), and soon both sides were using it, making a gas mask a necessary addition to the soldier's uniform. Tanks were also introduced during World War I.
George M. Cohan's song Over There was sung as the first troops headed to France in the summer of 1917. America's army consisted of 4.8 million men who had either volunteered or been drafted. Preparing the doughboys (nickname used for the Americans soldiers) the government set up military training camps. General John J. Pershing commanded the American Expeditionary Force. Initially the Americans filled up vacancies in the Allied ranks but Pershing envisioned a united American army. His wish was granted in August 1918. Before that, however, on March 1, 1918, Russia signed a peace treaty with Germany. This meant that the German soldiers who had held the Eastern Front were able to be moved to the Western Front in the hopes of crushing the Allies before America could send enough men to oppose them.
Germany's lofty goal of reaching Paris failed at the 2nd Battle of the Marne. On July 15, 1918, the Germans made a concentrated effort to cross the Marne River in the Chateau-Thierry sector. Under the cover of darkness the Germans threw shrapnel and poison gas into America's outnumbered 3rd Division. Many brave men fought fearlessly but none as gallantly as the 38th Regiment. They were called "The Rock of the Marne" because only 3,500 U.S. soldiers held their position against 20,000 Germans! Battles continued in several sectors until August 8, 1918, when the Germans were pushed back from the position they had held for four years. The 1st Battle of the Marne had begun on September 3, 1914, when the seemingly invincible Germans were pushing hard and fast toward Paris. Strangely, however, they had halted at the Marne. The Princess Pat Canadian Regiment said they saw a "man on a white horse" charging toward the German advance. General Gunn, the leader of the Princess Pat Regiment, commanded his soldiers to "follow the man on the white horse." Immediately the Germans began marching the other direction and the Allies went on the offense and drove the Germans back until the 10th of September. Proclaiming Divine Intervention, General Foch of France gave God all the glory for the event. Even the Germans consented that they lost the war when for no apparent reason they retreated at the 1st Battle of the Marne. Such amazing events can only happen by the powerful hand of God. Just as the 1st Battle of the Marne lifted the spirits of the Allies so did the 2nd Battle, and it was the beginning of the end for Germany.
Several more months of fighting took place. The Allies claimed victories at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and the Battle of the Argonne. Devastated Germany revolted against Kaiser Wilhelm II (called Kaiser Bill in America) and set up a socialistic government. A tired, defeated Germany finally asked for peace. It was on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month that an armistice was at last proclaimed. Joyfully the world welcomed the coming of peace. Although President Wilson wrote "14 Points" that he thought should appear in the final peace treaty the other countries disagreed and the final draft of the Treaty of Versailles put harsh conditions on the German people that made them ripe to follow a World War I veteran, Adolph Hitler, nearly 20 years later.
World War I was called the war to end all wars but it seems a more appropriate title would be the beginning of a century of wars. New technology made it easier to move troops, manufacture weapons, and carry on communications. Of the 65 million men who fought, over 8.5 million died and 21 million were wounded. America alone sacrificed 116,516 of her sons in the war. It is interesting to think what might have occurred if the Allied forces had lost the war. What would have happened when the Nazis took control of Germany? There would have been no one to stop the horrors that lead up to World War II if Europe had been under German control. In 1918 the world did not know of the coming storm; they only welcomed the glorious peace that had been purchased at a high price.
Study Questions and Follow up Research:
- Which countries formed the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance?
- Name the countries that made up the Central Powers and the Allied Powers.
- What were some new forms of weapons used in World War I?
- Read World War I "The War to End Wars" by Zachary Kent. This book gives an excellent overview of the war.
- Look at a map of Europe before and after the war. The book mentioned above has these maps, as do most history books.
- During the years between World War I and World War II, November 11 was celebrated as Armistice Day and later the name was changed to Veterans Day. Pretend you are a soldier and write a letter home telling your family how you feel on Armistice Day.
AMY PUETZ, a homeschool graduate, loves history, sewing, and working as a computer graphic artist for her company A to Z Designs. She is also the author of the exciting book Costumes with Character. Visit her website at a2zdesigns.vcn.com. She makes her home in Wright, Wyoming.