The dawn of the 20th Century was a time of unprecedented progress and innovation: the possibility of humans taking flight became a probability with the Zepplin (1900), the Wright brothers’ aeroplane (1903) and the helicopter (1907).

Bakelite, a virtually indestructible petroleum-based product opened new markets and sharp minds; every plastic implement in the world today originates from Leo Baekeland’s formula (1907).

Everything from a favourite teddy bear (1902) to the artificial illumination (1902) we give little thought to was discovered/invented/created around the turn of the century.

Even the teabags for your fav cuppa were invented in 1904!

Hoovers, tractors and neon lights... the early 20th century saw the world treated to such a veritable explosion of genius incrementally making human life better and easier.

Who could have known the war to end all wars was just a few years away?

Your Superprof now goes back in time to examine the simmering socio-political unrest and chronicles the events leading up to when that turmoil seethed to a boil, to survey the destruction and tally the losses.

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The Lead-up to World War I

You could say that, for being neighbours, the Europeans sure did fight a lot!

Fortunately, three empires – the Ottoman, the Prussian and the House of Romanov in Russia held things in check, but only just.

Prussia included large swaths of Germany, as well as Poland and a bit of eastern Russia. The Ottoman Empire, though waning in political and military significance, was nevertheless economically powerful and contributed much to the late 19th-century peace efforts.

Austria-Hungary was a bit of a question mark. Today it is sometimes referred to as an empire but it was more of a dual monarchy that managed only foreign affairs and military matters together. Everything else, including matters unique to the individual monarchies, were managed by their respective governments.

The so-called Austro-Hungarian Empire took up most of southeastern Europe, abutting Russian territory to the west and German lands to the north.

Some people were not happy that their country had been absorbed into that fold; that sentiment is what kicked off the Great War.

We’ll get to that event soon enough. For now, let’s continue drawing our map...

Nobody liked the French so, to keep France from becoming any type of power to be reckoned with, Germany’s chancellor brokered the League of Emperors; an alliance between Europe’s three major thrones.

Otto von Bismark is today credited brokering that deal. Sharply intuitive and cunningly astute, he seemed to have had the right touch for just about any negotiation. By all accounts, he wasn’t really a nice guy, though.

Still, concerns over Russia’s commitment to the League led Prussia and Austria-Hungary to form a Dual Alliance, leaving the Tsar’s interests (and military strength) out of further negotiations. Later, Italy joined, making it a Triple Alliance.

America, reveling in its pre-Depression prosperity, was busy making great strides in industry that would later impact the outcome of the war.

What about the British Empire?

Until just after the turn of the century, we were enjoying our splendid isolation – avoiding any long-term alliances and relying only on our vast colonial resources for military strength as well as our economy.

While there was relative peace in Europe during this time, there were skirmishes: the Boer wars, for one, that clearly illustrated Britain’s vulnerability in spite of the Empire’s might.

For that reason, we entered into an Entente Cordiale, a series of agreements that greatly improved Anglo-French relations. Later, we signed into the Anglo-Russian Convention, meaning that, if either France or Russia needed our help in wartime, we would join in.

Meanwhile, France and Russia had brokered their own agreements.

Coming into 1914, there was Germany-Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Italy – the Triple Alliance, sandwiched by Great Britain-France-Russia’s Triple Entente.

Now that our battle lines are drawn, let’s get on with the fighting!

Sarajevo citizens read the annexation announcement
Discovering their country's annexation to Austria-Hungary left many Serbians angry Source: Wikipedia

The Shot Heard Round the World

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, was touring Sarajevo, Bosnia being a territory that the Austria-Hungary empire had annexed from the waning Ottoman Empire.

Among the crowds lining the motorcade route were six members of Young Bosnia, a body of political dissidents particularly active in schools. They intended to assassinate the Archduke in order to force the relinquishment of the south Slav provinces.

The grenade lobbed at the passing car missed its mark, injuring several bystanders. Remarkably, that was the only attempt made on the dignitary’s life while in procession.

Purely by chance, as he was returning from the hospital, having visited those wounded by the blast, a wrong turn brought him in the sights of one of the assassins, who was armed with a pistol.

Two shots, one for the Archduke and one for his wife, fired by a youth just shy of his 20th birthday caused Europe to descend into chaos.

Although the winds of war hardly ruffled Viennese society, the political effect was deep.

From anti-Serb riots in Sarajevo encouraged by Austro-Hungarian leaders to imprisonment and extradition of prominent Serbs, all of which led to the July Ultimatum: intentionally unacceptable demands placed on the Serbian government with the deliberate intention of provoking war.

Such demands have a way of causing earth-shattering events; just think about how such demands gave rise to Nazi Germany!

Everyone Gets Involved

As though just waiting for a chance to fight, every country mobilised its army upon Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia (July 28, 1914).

  • Russia marched out in support of Serbia on July 29th
  • Germany declared war on Russia for mobilising (August 1st)
  • France, who was asked by Germany to remain neutral, withdrew their troops from its western border but mobilised their reserve military units.

France’s conflicting actions caused Germany headaches. Under their Schlieffen plan, they had intended to send the bulk of their troops to the western front but, in response to France’s mobilisation, Germany was forced to activate its military reserves and send them east.

There was further confusion for Austria with Germany, whom they had thought would help them against Russia. Germany had had another plan in mind: they would hold the French back while Austria fought the Russians and Serbians on their own.

A further miscommunication informed Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm the British would remain neutral if France was not attacked. Upon receiving information to the contrary, the Kaiser gave his general carte blanche to proceed as he would.

On August 3rd, having already taken Luxembourg, Germany declared war on France.

The British then declared war on Germany for giving an unsatisfactory reply to their demands to respect Belgium’s neutrality.

The Germans thought it would be a short war
Anticipating a brief conflict, German soldiers eagerly set out for France Source: Wikipedia

World War I and the Rest of the World

The Central Powers and Allied Forces fighting were not the only hostilities; this was, after all, a world war; there was fighting on virtually every continent and on the open seas to boot!


Germany held large swaths of territory – in China and what was then called German Samoa. New Zealand and Australia got in on the action by liberating that Samoan territory as well as the island that later came to be known as New Britain.

Meanwhile, Japan got busy in Micronesia and then proceeded to capture Qingdao, in China’s northwestern province. Both were German territories.


Much of the continent had been colonised by European powers; now was the time those colonies rose up in arms against one another.

The French and British united themselves against the Germans, taking over their Togoland and Kamerun protectorates.

The Germans positioned in Southwest Africa attacked South Africa, where British forces were encamped. Fighting there continued for the duration of the war.


In spite of Germany’s best efforts to incite uprisings, India remained staunchly loyal to the Crown. Men enlisted in record numbers; more than a million Indian soldiers served in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

We note that their efforts were an attempt to gain their independence from Britain. They were sorely disappointed when, after cessation of hostilities, it was not given them.

The Americas joined in the fighting rather late.

The United States had adopted a stance of non-intervention until 1915 when a German submarine sank the Lusitania. The 128 Americans on board that perished caused President Woodrow Wilson to demand that Germany not target civilian ships.

Germany agreed but, as the war ground on – now in its third year, they resumed unrestricted submarine warfare with full awareness that the U.S. would fight back.

The German foreign minister sent a telegram inviting Mexico to ally themselves with Germany to fight the Americans but British forces intercepted the missive, which was presented to the American president via the U.S. embassy in London.

That and the sinking of six American merchant ships were all the incentive President Wilson needed: on the 6th of April 1917, the United States joined the Allied Powers in fighting Germany.

South American countries and Caribbean nations were not excluded: in that last year of the war, just about every nation declared war on Germany, with Panama and Nicaragua also declaring war on Austria.

For its sheer scale, WWI ranks among the world's most famous historical events.

Soldiers were as likely to die from disease as a grenade strike in the trenches
Trench warfare killed by explosion and disease Source: Wikipedia Credit: John Warwick Brooke

Analysis of WWI

Austria suffered heavy casualties in the early days of the conflict. In fact, Serbian forces defeating the Austro-Hungarian forces is considered one of modern history’s greatest upsets.

With more than 35 million casualties, WWI is regarded as one of the bloodiest wars in all of humanity.

A lot of deaths likely came from the fact that the war started with a lot of troops using 19th century weaponry and battlefield tactics but, as the war progressed, the same explosion of innovation that advanced civilisation also made fighting much more deadly:

  • The British Ladyship tanks premiered on September 1916; France’s and Germany’s soon followed
  • Artillery and aircraft brought new threats from the sky
  • radios, telephones and wireless communication permitted communication between the front lines and the decision makers who remained far removed from the fighting.
  • Trench warfare, made possible by the development and improvement of the grenade, took lives indiscriminately – by disease or by explosion.
  • The might of the British Navy could not overcome the stealth of German submarines.

Things might have kept on indefinitely were it not for the Russian revolution, whose conclusion culminated in the signing of a treaty with Germany.

One by one, all of Germany’s allies capitulated. Left alone to face enemies around the globe, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated on November 9th, leaving the remaining politicians to sign the armistice.

It was truly a war to end all wars... until World War II came along.

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