First World War (1914-1918): facts, characters and dates of the First World War

World War I went down in history as The Great War because never before had a conflict involved so many countries and caused so much death and destruction .


At the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe there was a decidedly tense atmosphere. The century that had just ended had left a legacy of rivalry and unresolved issues that did not bode well.

We can derive a simple scheme, with the forces of the Triple Entente (England, France and Russia) on one side and the Central Empires (Austria and Germany) plus the Ottoman Empire on the other.


England excelled economically and industrially . The new Germany unified and governed by the ambitious “Kaiser” William II , however , was making great strides , so much so as to undermine English primacy in many sectors.

With a steadily growing industry , a well-trained army and a fleet capable of rivaling the British, Germany was poised to become the new leader of Europe. And this couldn’t go well with England


The great revival of Germany had gone to the detriment of France , which had lost the territories of Alsace and Lorraine during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and was very threatened by the increasingly powerful German neighbor.


Austria, or rather, the Austro-Hungarian Empire , was instead struggling with neighboring  Serbia , which opposed the interests of the Empire in the Balkans in the name of the desire to unite all the Slavic populations (such as Albanians, Montenegrins and Macedonians )  under a single flag.


The difficult situation in the Balkan Peninsula had also caused a contrast between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia , which aimed at the possession of the Dardanelles Strait to finally have an outlet on the Mediterranean and to obtain it had offered its protection to the Balkan countries that they demanded independence.

All this was observed very carefully by the Ottoman Empire , the former Turkish power (now in deep crisis) which had approached Austria with the intention of recovering the territories it had lost during the two Balkan wars. 


Formally the Kingdom of Italy was an ally of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with which it had even signed the pact of the Triple Alliance in 1882 . It was no secret, however, that many Italians wanted to take over Trentino and Venezia-Giulia (under Austrian rule) to finally complete the unification of the country.


In addition to the political situation, among the causes that led to the war, however, it must be remembered that in those years Europe had taken hold of an ideology called nationalism , that is the idea that one’s own nation was superior in all respects to the others, also justifying the war as a legitimate tool to sanction this domination.

This explains why all the powers were rearming themselves and why some nations (such as Germany) were aiming to conquer an ever greater space .

In short, despite the apparent peace, all the great nations were  waiting for an excuse to jump into each other’s throats!


The opportunity arose on June 28, 1914 when the Austrian Archduke Francesco Ferdinando was assassinated in Sarajevo by a group of Serbian nationalists.


Although the bombers had not been armed directly from Serbia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire sent an ultimatum to Belgrade, stating that if the requests were not accepted it would lead to war .

Austria-Hungary wanted to settle the dispute with Serbia once and for all and the requests contained in the ultimatum were deliberately written to be unacceptable. In fact , the Serbian refusal was dry . Thus, one month after the attack, on July 28, 1914 , the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia .

It was a real domino effect . Russia immediately rushed to defend Serbia by declaring war on Austria-Hungary, however, triggering the reaction of Germany which declared war not only on the Tsar, but also on France , its ally. The Turkish empire followed closely and immediately sided with the Alliance above all to oppose Russia. World War I was ready to set Europe on fire.


The first big blow was hit by Germany. In fact, the German High Command thought that in order to quickly conclude the conflict , the western front (the western front) should be immediately secured , since Russia, which instead was to the east (eastern front) was still slow and unprepared for an offensive. effective.

For this reason, with a surprise maneuver, the German troops circumvented the French defenses deployed on the border and invaded Belgium , which however had declared itself neutral.


This move gave Germany a surprising head start, but it outraged international public opinion and convinced the hitherto hesitant England to declare war on the Central Powers  on August 4, 1914 .

Despite this , the German advance seemed unstoppable and after less than a month of battles it seemed that Paris would have to capitulate at any moment.


On 5 September 1914, however, the French armies, supported by English troops, stopped the Germans near the Marne river , unleashing a counter-offensive ( First Battle of the Marne , 5-12 September) which caused the German army to retreat to the Aisne river .

A similar victory, as well as for some errors of the German generals, was due to the fact that on the Eastern front Russia had finally broken the delay by attacking the Austro-German borders.

The invasion did not succeed thanks to the military genius of the German generals Paul Von Hindenburg and Erich Von Ludendorff , who defeated the Russians in the battles of Tannenberg (26-30 August 1914) and the Masuri Lakes (7-14 August) , but still deprived the Germany of decisive forces to oppose the British and French on the opposite front.

Austria-Hungary instead suffered a heavy defeat in the battle of Galicia (23 August-11 September) by the troops of Grand Duke Nicola Romanov and only the intervention of the German ally stopped the Russian advance. Even on the Serbian front the Austro-Hungarian troops failed to break through.


After a thunderous start, the conflict that many hoped would be resolved quickly became a long war of position , where it took weeks of assaults to conquer even a few hundred meters  . It is the so-called trench warfare , the “trademark” of the First World War.

The front lines were in fact composed of deep fortified pits called trenches . Here a soldier could stay for weeks, sometimes even months, waiting to be able to conquer the enemy trench, which could only be taken with frequent infantry assaults which, however, exposed the soldiers to the free fire of machine guns.

Any attempt to conquer a trench was almost always carnage .


In addition to the bloody combat tactics, however, the Great War is also remembered as the first “total war” in history . The war effort in fact also involved the entire civil society , from the economic sector, to industries, up to the man in the street.

The pounding propaganda  of the various nations in fact incited not only the soldiers to the front, but also workers, women and even children. Everyone had to do their part to win over the enemy!


At the beginning of 1915 the Central Empires could boast a certain military superiority on the continent, but the naval blockade imposed by the English fleet prevented any kind of supply by sea. The Entente forces, on the other hand, had almost unlimited access to resources from the various colonies .

To force the naval blockade, Germany deployed its powerful submarines , which began to infest the Atlantic, sinking enemy ships and merchant ships.

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Meanwhile, new protagonists enter the scene , significantly changing the balance of the struggle. Bulgaria , an ally of the Central Empires, in fact attacked Serbia, which could not resist the joint pressures from the north (Austria-Hungary) and the east (Bulgaria) and was occupied. Jointly, Germany was able to wipe out the Russians in the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes (7-22 February 1915) and invade Poland.


These were hard blows for the Entente as the fall of Serbia and Poland gave the enemy an immense strip of territory that cut Eastern Europe from North to South, completely ousting Russia from the game. The British and French therefore tried to overturn the situation by attacking the vital Dardanelles strait , but the expedition was a failure, mainly due to the intervention of the Ottoman Empire (or Turkish Empire).

The Turks themselves had to deal with the uprising of the Arab populations , who had been pushed by the British to rebellion against Ottoman tyranny.

However, 1915 is above all the year in which Italy broke the delay and entered the conflict (the famous 24 May ).

The Italian army, however, did not take sides with the Central Empires, but gave support to France and England , with which the Italian government had entered into a secret agreement (the famous Pact of London ). On 23 May 1915 , therefore, the Kingdom of Italy declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire and deployed its legions on the Karst and on the border with Austria.

The First World War also became an Italian affair.


1916 opened with a new large-scale offensive by Germany, which abandoned its defensive positions and raged against France in the long Battle of Verdun (21 February-19 December 1916). This was one of the bloodiest clashes of the entire conflict (around 700,000 fallen from both sides) and saw for the first time the massive use of flamethrowers and lethal gas weapons .

Despite the large cost in terms of lives and resources, the battle left the situation virtually unchanged.

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A “white weapon” charge of French soldiers. These assaults were carried out against enemy positions by soldiers armed with bayonets, a long pointed blade mounted on the barrel of the gun.


In fact , the Austrian expedition to punish the betrayed alliance was matched by a prompt response from the Italian army , generating a continuous tug-of-war between lost territories and regained territories that did not move the front line much but cost many dead and wounded for both sides.

In the second part of 1916 it was instead the turn of the Entente : in July, in fact, English and French troops attacked the German positions on the Somme river , replicating the carnage the Verduns

In fact, more than a million soldiers perished in the Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916) . This was also the first battle that saw the massive use of tanks , new war monsters offered by technological progress.

In 1916, the only major naval battle of the Great War was also fought . Near the peninsula of Jutland (today’s Denmark) the super-fleets of England and Germany faced each other, with the latter wanting to break the British blockade that was stifling war production. The Battle of Jutland (May 31-June 1, 1916) was apparently won by the German fleet, which lost fewer ships, but the damage suffered was such that the victory still failed to break British supremacy over the seas.


By now in the fourth year of the war , Europe was by now at its exhaustion, with increasingly scarce food and necessities and ever higher war costs. Despite this, the end of hostilities still seemed a long way off.

It was then that the balances shifted!


The first major event that greatly affected the fate of the war was the end of Tsarist Russia.

Burdened by hunger and misery, Russia in 1917 was in fact on the brink of the abyss. The  heavy defeats suffered on the German front had precipitated the situation of a backward country and in many ways still semi-medieval. Despite this,  Tsar Nicholas II  continued to rule with an iron fist, regardless of popular discontent.

In February 1917, however, a violent revolt broke out in the capital and the lack of reaction of the military forces triggered the historic  Russian Revolution  which in a few months led to the establishment of a new  communist regime .

The new government under  Lenin’s leadership  ended hostilities with Germany and brought Russia out of the conflict with the Brest Litovsk treaty .


The increasingly severe shortage of resources due to the British blockade had prompted Germany to escalate the submarine battle , with more and more ships (including from neutral countries) sunk every week.

This led to the irritation of the United States, which in 1915 had also seen the Lusitania shipwrecked by the Germans with 128 American citizens on board.

The situation worsened when five other US-flagged merchant ships were hit by German submarines. On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson’s United States declared war on Germany.


In Italy, meanwhile, the air was getting hot and not only because of the events on the front.

The country was agitated by strikes and protests over the shortage of bread that quickly degenerated into a heated debate between those who wanted to continue the war and those who instead demanded an end to the war effort. This situation naturally generated a climate of general uncertainty which weakened both the government and the morale of the troops.

In October 1917, Austria-Hungary unleashed a new offensive and the Italian ranks, confused and poorly managed by the High Command, suffered a series of defeats, including the very serious defeat of Caporetto,  which caused the expulsion of General Cadorna , hitherto supreme commander of the armed forces, in favor of General Armando Diaz.


Despite the closure of the Russian front – which would have allowed Germany to focus only on the invasion of France – and the Austrian successes on the Italian border, things were not looking good there for the Central Powers. Weakened by the continental block by the British, oppressed by exorbitant and no longer sustainable war expenses, Austria-Hungary and Germany had to suffer the revenge of the Allies,  finally united in a single General Command chaired by the French general Ferdinand Foch .

In fact, in a few months the Germans were driven back  by the British, French and Americans to the positions of the beginning of the hand, nullifying months of fatigue and (many) victims.

On the eastern front, instead , Bulgaria was attacked by joint British, Serbian, French and Greek forces (Greece had changed its sovereign and therefore its alignment) and capitulated , interrupting the lines of communication between the Central Empires and the Ottoman Empire, which  remained isolated . These events further increased the pressure on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even if the main concerns came from the Italian front.

Armando Diaz’s army had in fact managed to reorganize itself and in a few months had regained a lot of ground, so much so that it reached the decisive offensive in Vittorio Veneto (the famous Vittorio Veneto Rescue , 24 October-4 November 1918) which sanctioned the definitive defeat of ‘Austria Hungary .

The surrender, which in fact also decreed the end of the centuries-old Habsburg empire, was signed on November 3, 1918 with the treaty of Villa Giusti .

Even the Ottoman Empire , now worn out and without resources, had to resign itself to the impossibility of continuing the war and on 30 October 1918 proclaimed its surrender to the Entente forces. This was the last act of the Sultanate at the helm of the Empire, which would soon dissolve to make way for modern Turkey.


Left alone and plagued by a wave of general discontent, Germany continued to resist, but her fate was already sealed.

On November 11, 1918 , Germany, by now become a republic after the abdication of Emperor Wilhelm II, signed the armistice of Compi├Ęgne-Rethondes .

The First World War was over and, in addition to having decreed the fall of 4 empires (Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German, plus the particular case of Tsarist Russia) and caused between 16 and 17 million deaths (plus millions of wounded and mutilated), had crowned the United States as the new leader for the West .

However, the heavy conditions imposed on the defeated (especially on Germany) and the broken promises towards some victors (Italy) did not create the conditions for a lasting peace , cultivating the germ that a little more than twenty years later would have triggered a new and even more bloody global conflict.

SOURCES: Elements of History , Camera-Fabietti; Braids; Focus

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