Modern World History

The First World War 1914-1918

We have seen how communism was a product of the Industrial Revolution which had created mass production and with it a new class of urban workers. Already in 1848 there had been violent attempts by ordinary people to gain some say in the way their countries were run. Those regimes that survived that 'Year of Revolutions' appealed to patriotism as a way of combating the communist vision of universal brotherhood. Throughout Europe national pride was expressed by large armies, new weaponry, and strong navies.

In Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia power remained concentrated in the hands of monarchs and a hereditary nobility still largely defined by the possession of land. Where there was industry it was concentrated in the hands of a few. Britain and France were democracies but here too national pride was a strong factor determining policy. With so much military hardware lined up it was, in Blackadder's phrase, almost 'too much trouble not to have a war.'

What ensured that any outbreak of hostilities would become general was the system of alliances - Britain, France and Russia on the one hand, Germany and Austria Hungary on the other. The most likely flashpoint was the Balkans. Here Catholic Austria and Orthodox Russia collided over the future of Serbia, a small Greek Orthodox state that had won its independence from Turkey in 1882. In 1908 Austria annexed the neighbouring Turkish provinces of Bosnia and Herzogovina despite the fact that they contained many Serbs. The Serb response was to assassinate the heir to the Austrian throne whilst he was on a state visit to Bosnia on 28 June 1914. When Austria attacked Serbia Russia mobilised. This was too much of a threat to Germany which declared war on France and Russia rather than be caught unprepared.

Britain might have stood aloof but Germany's generals already had a plan for outflanking French defences by attacking through neutral Belgium. Britain was bound by the Treaty of London of 1830 to protect Belgium's independence and so began four years of destructive stalemate with neither side possessing the superiority in numbers or weapons necessary to overcome the other.

It is said that all generals enter a war having prepared for the one they last fought. The First World War was no exception. Yet modernity had been at work in the sphere of armaments just as much as in any other area of life. Battleships were bigger and more powerful; aircraft were beginning to become a weapon of war; chemistry would result in the use of poison gas and the dreaded machine gun would bring an end to any notion of glory on the Western Front. Modernity, in the shape of moving film, also made the First World War the first major conflict to be recorded on camera. Through the pictures that survive, the graveyards and most especially the hundreds of letters written by soldiers at the front, the experience of war lives on. Meanwhile Britain's colonies sent soldiers to fight alongside the armies of the 'mother country'. At Gallipoli in 1915 a futile attempt to knock Germany's ally Turkey out of the war was spearheaded by troops from Australia and New Zealand. Soldiers from what is now India and Pakistan shivered alongside Irishmen and Canadians in the trenches on the Western Front. Austrians and Italians fought a merciless mountain war in the Alps, bringing down avalanches of snow to sweep away their enemies. Russia put huge armies into the field but only one soldier in three had a rifle and courage was useless in the face of modern weaponry. Finally, German attempts to starve Britain into surrender brought 'Uncle Sam' into the war, tipping the balance on the Western Front. Germany's defeat of Russia had led to the fall of the Tsar in 1917 but her own collapse followed barely a year later, when mutinous soldiers and sailors forced the Kaiser to abdicate. When the peace-makers gathered at Versailles in 1919 it was a very different world they had to deal with.