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As the inevitable outcome of nineteenth-century imperialism, local wars, and rival power blocs in Europe, World War I had tremendous consequences. It transformed territorial boundaries in Europe and destroyed three great empires. Ideas about class privilege and gender discrimination began to change. Political ideology was radicalized through communism, fascism, and socialism, and the international war debt contributed to a dire postwar economic situation.
- No Quick Victories
- Politics Polarized
- War Aims Widened
World War I (1914–1918) was the great climax of the age of competitive imperialism. The deepest causes of the war lay in the struggle between the major European powers for control over territories newly occupied by Europeans during the late nineteenth century, especially in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. This tension also was linked to competition in armaments and a generalized sense of rivalry in industrial development. As the period of economic liberalization of the mid-nineteenth century receded, it was replaced by an age of competing tariff regimes. Rivalries produced a series of localized wars and diplomatic crises during the two decades before 1914. Some conflicts reflected global competition, such as the Fashoda Crisis (1898) in Sudan, the South African War (1899–1902), the Russo-Japanese War (1904– 1906), the Moroccan crises (1905 and 1911), and the Italian invasion of Libya (1911). Some rivalries reflected long-standing tensions in southeastern Europe, such as the crisis over the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (1908–1909). These tensions in turn solidified the rival power blocs into which Europe had been divided, with Russia, France, and Britain bound in one alliance system (the Entente) and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy in another (the Triple Alliance).
Certain destructive political and economic doctrines also seduced educated opinion. Social Darwinist and geopolitical theories, which asserted the inevitability of wars to control resources, helped reconcile many people to the idea of armed conflict. Political pressure groups and the new cheap newspapers asserted imperialist and militarist values. Domestic political tensions, worsened by rapid industrialization, especially inside Germany and Russia, also tempted reactionaries to see a short and successful war as a means of escape from reformist or revolutionary movements.
On the other hand, countervailing forces existed. Both liberal and socialist internationalists promoted notions of peace through free trade or working-class solidarity. Increasing economic interdependence between the major powers caused many people to believe that war was unlikely. Some people hoped that the two Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 signaled that a new international order was in formation.
The descent into war itself had European origins. On 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, by Serbian nationalists. The Austro-Hungarian government decided to use the assassination as an opportunity to inflict a military punishment on Serbia, its rival in southeastern Europe. Promises of German support, even if the humiliation of Serbia involved risk of a wider war, were obtained. Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July, demanding drastic action against nationalist extremists. The Russian government, supporting Serbia, acted with equal vigor and instituted orders for “the period preparatory to war” on 26 July. The Austro-Hungarians opened their military campaign against Serbia on 28 July. The sequence of diplomatic events that followed during the next week ensured the escalation of a local war (between Serbia and Austria-Hungary) into a continental war (between Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand, and Russia and France on the other) and then a world war (when Britain declared war on Germany). All sides made errors that snuffed out hopes for peace. The Germans, whose leaders wavered between eagerness for war and a preference for a negotiated settlement, failed to press the case for mediation upon their Austro-Hungarian allies. Similarly, the British and French failed to discourage the Russians from precipitate action, always giving a higher priority to the preservation of their alliance system. The Russians recklessly ordered general mobilization on 30 July. The Germans, gambling mistakenly on British neutrality, rushed to declarations of war against both Russia and France on 1 and 3 August and violated Belgian neutrality on 3 August. The British, stung by this violation and determined to maintain their alliances against their chief imperial and commercial rival, declared war on Germany on 4 August.
No Quick Victories
The first months of fighting were marked by rapid military movements. The first battles, however, failed to deliver quick victories to those taking the offensive. On the western front the German invasion of Belgium and France was halted at the Battle of the Marne in France in September 1914. On the eastern front the Russian invasion of East Prussia was halted at the Battle of Tannenberg in late August. After the first Battle of Ypres in Belgium in November, a vast line of trenches in the west stabilized. By this time the war had escalated globally. Japan entered the war on the Entente side in August in order to secure German possessions in the Pacific and China. Turkey entered on the side of the Central powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) in November, hoping to profit at the expense of Russia, Turkey’s old antagonist. During the first months of the war Britain and its imperial allies conquered the bulk of Germany’s colonial empire.
During 1915 horrors multiplied. In Turkey the most appalling in a list of atrocities unleashed by the war occurred: the Armenian people endured an attempted genocide. On the western front a series of offensives by the British and French failed to dislodge the German forces. Similarly, in April the Turks repulsed an Entente attempt to seize the Dardanelles strait by landing at Gallipoli, and the invasion force withdrew in December. In May Italy was induced to enter the war on the Entente side but enjoyed no military breakthrough. On the eastern front German and Austro-Hungarian campaigns were more successful, and Russian Poland was occupied in the summer. Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the Central powers in September, and a subsequent German-led offensive in Serbia was also successful. An Entente counteroffensive from Salonika in Greece in October stalled, and British forces also retreated from Baghdad. Whereas the “war map” favored the Central powers, the Entente was successful in economic warfare. Britain’s decision to impose an economic blockade on Germany in March 1915 began the process of Germany’s internal debilitation.
Vast battles of attrition, in a war now based upon industrialized killing, characterized the fighting in 1916. In the west both a German attempt to take Verdun, France (February–July), and a British counterattack at the Somme River in France (July–November) ended in costly failures. Romania entered the war on the Entente side in August but was soon overrun by German forces. A Russian offensive in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia (June–August) was more successful. A vast naval battle between the British and German fleets off the Jutland (Jylland) peninsula of Denmark in May had an indecisive outcome. German surface vessels, however, were unable to challenge the British blockade after that date. In addition, in response to U.S. pressure, Germany was forced to moderate its use of submarines against merchant ships in the Atlantic. U.S. sales of war material, overwhelmingly to the Entente side, continued to grow. The Central powers again dominated in territorial terms in 1916, but the blockade steadily worsened shortages of domestic food and matériel.
In pursuit of unity at home, both sides promised their people that they were fighting defensive wars. Diplomatically, however, both sides made deals involving promises of annexations, either to shore up or to widen their alliances. By the Straits Agreement of March 1915, Britain and France promised Russia possession of Constantinople, Turkey. In April 1915, with the Treaty of London, Britain promised significant annexed territories on the Adriatic coast to Italy. In October 1915 Britain promised the Sharif of Mecca that Britain would support independence for the Arab peoples under Ottoman rule if the Arabs rose in revolt. The exact boundaries of future independent Arab states, however, were not made clear. In February 1916 France and Britain agreed to divide the bulk of the former German colonies. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, France and Britain agreed on the partition of the bulk of the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, Germany prepared plans for annexations in both east and west in the so-called September Program of 1914. Germany’s leaders of army and navy steadfastly insisted on annexations in Belgium and France for strategic security. In securing Bulgaria’s adhesion to the Central powers in September 1915, Germany promised Bulgaria gains in Macedonia. Most importantly, in 1915 and 1916 Germany and Austria-Hungary also agreed on annexations in Eastern Europe at Russia’s expense. In a major step toward this goal, in November 1916 Germany and Austria-Hungary proclaimed a new kingdom of Poland, carved out of Russian Poland.
The war polarized politics. The increasing demands of war meant that liberal ideals were at a discount. From the political right in each warring nation arose pressures for more authoritarian policies and an all-consuming military mobilization. The ultrapatriotic newspapers called incessantly for victory at any cost through the suppression of dissent, the expulsion of aliens, and radical economic nationalism. Politicians and military figures promising an intensification of the war rose to prominence and displaced moderates. For example, in Germany Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg were appointed to the Supreme Command in August 1916. The two generals overshadowed the civilian government, and their political intriguing eventually secured the resignation of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg in July 1917. In Britain the Liberal government of H. H. Asquith steadily retreated from free speech, free service, and free trade. Conscription was introduced in January 1916. The Paris Resolutions, decided upon at an interallied conference of British, French, and Russian delegates in Paris in June 1916, threatened Germany with a postwar economic boycott. David Lloyd George, promising to wage war more vigorously until achieving a “knock-out blow” against Germany, displaced Asquith as prime minister in Britain in December 1916.
Nonetheless, in late 1916 diplomats attempted to resolve the war by negotiation. On 12 December, Germany offered to end the war by a diplomatic settlement. On 18 December, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, a dedicated liberal internationalist, urged all sides to specify their war aims, hoping to increase pressure for negotiations. Britain, Russia, and France rejected the German offer on 30 December. Wilson pressed the case for “peace without victory” in a major address to the U.S. Senate on 22 January 1917. The Germans, however, undercut his effort, announcing a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare for 1 February 1917. This resumption threatened the lucrative U.S. trade in war matériel with the Entente. Wilson cut off diplomatic relations with Germany. But not until the collapse of the czarist regime in the first Russian Revolution of mid-March did Wilson make his final decision on war. Characterizing the war as a democratic crusade, Wilson took the United States into the war against Germany on 6 April 1917.
During 1917 military stalemate persisted. Major campaigns were persisted with—in part to forestall rising public pressure for the revision of war aims and peace. The German U-boat war in the Atlantic was initially successful but was countered by the convoy system. The French attempted an advance in the west under General Nivelle in April, but this soon faltered, and mutinies followed. The Russians mounted a last major advance in July, but it ground to a halt within a fortnight. The British followed with a major offensive in Flanders, in Belgium (July–October), also to no avail. The Italians, too, suffered a major reverse at the village of Kobarid (Caporetto), Slovenia, in October. The British success in taking Jerusalem in December was one of the few Entente military successes in 1917. Only the promise of U.S. assistance gave grounds for hope.
In political terms rivalries intensified between the political right, demanding victory at any cost, and the political left, now demanding peace by negotiation or revolution. In Germany widespread strikes were staged in April 1917 (and later in January 1918). German liberals and socialists seeking domestic reform and peace succeeded in passing the Peace Resolution through the Reichstag (parliament) in July 1917. The new Russian government pressed unsuccessfully for an interallied conference to revise war aims. European socialists proposed to hold a conference in Stockholm, Sweden, to draw up the basis of a compromise peace, but the western powers refused to allow their socialist parties to be represented. Britain experienced serious industrial unrest in April, and in August the British Labour Party swung around to support the idea of an international socialist conference at Stockholm. Faced with continuing disputes among moderate and revolutionary socialists, however, and the decisions of the U.S., British, and French governments denied passports to their socialist delegates, and the organizers eventually abandoned their efforts to summon a broadly representative socialist conference in Stockholm. This intensified domestic political tensions still further. For example, the French socialist party left the government in September in protest at annexationist politics. The Papal Peace Note of August 1917 was one of many diplomatic opportunities for peace during the year. In Russia the Bolshevik Revolution of November eventually brought about an armistice on the eastern front in December.
War Aims Widened
Behind the scenes, however, diplomacy again widened war aims during 1917. In February, France and Russia agreed on gains at German expense in east and west in the Doumergue Agreement, and Britain and Japan agreed on the disposal of Germany’s colonies in the Pacific. In April, Britain and France offered Italy a share of the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. At three conferences at Bad Kreuznach, Germany, in April, May, and August 1917, again Germany and Austria-Hungary agreed upon annexations, principally in eastern Europe. On the other hand, diplomats made secret attempts at a diplomatic settlement. In September German Foreign Minister Kühlmann approached Britain, offering to give up Germany’s gains in the west for a free hand in the east.
During the winter of 1917–1918 the peace talks between the Russians and Germans provided another opportunity for a general peace. The western powers resisted any peace of compromise brokered by socialists. Instead, in separate addresses in January 1918, Lloyd George (his Caxton Hall speech) and Wilson (his Fourteen Points speech) reaffirmed their liberal democratic ideals. Germany eventually imposed a harsh peace on the defeated Russians through the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 1918.
In spite of growing domestic discontent inside Germany, the German Army High Command insisted on a vast offensive to achieve a victory in France before U.S. troops could arrive in strength. The offensive was launched on 21 March 1918 and was initially successful. Allied counterattacks in July and August threw back the offensive, however, and an inexorable German retreat began. By September the military crisis was so serious that the German Army High Command buckled. A reformist government of liberals, democrats, and socialists was formed under Prince Max of Baden to pursue both domestic democratization and a negotiated peace. This government applied to Wilson for an armistice. The armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.
The consequences of the war for Europe and the rest of the world in the twentieth century were enormous. The war transformed the territorial boundaries of Europe: three great conservative empires—the Russian, the German, and the Austro-Hungarian—were swept away. New states were created in Eastern Europe, most notably Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Huge social changes were starkly revealed. The “socialism of the trenches” undermined notions of class privilege. Democratic expectations were heightened, but disenchantment followed. The idea of “separate spheres” in gender relations was both challenged by women’s wider experience of work and reinforced by war propaganda lauding masculine militarism. The war radicalized the political ideologies of the prewar era. Liberalism wilted. The schism between democratic and revolutionary socialists became unbridgeable. Communism, promising liberation from capitalism and imperialism, was catapulted into world politics. Fascism (and National Socialism) erupted in response, promising salvation from Communism through militarist values, authoritarian politics, and racial purity. The propaganda techniques so ruthlessly deployed during the war to manage the masses inspired the dictators of the interwar years. The enormous cost of the war, which produced huge internal and international debts, contributed to the persistent postwar economic dislocation. In cultural terms the war provoked a pervasive cynicism, tension between the generations, religious doubt, and a profound antimilitarism. A vibrant and critical modernism emerged.
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