World War 1 for UPSC: World History (UPSC Notes)

In this article, I wanna walk you through the World War 1 For UPSC, World History (UPSC Notes).

For most of you, World History appears to be a little boring but let us remind that this is a scoring section provided you have prepared it smartly considering the cost-benefit aspect in the picture. Do not go through many sources for World History.

For this, every minor detail from World History is not expected in UPSC Mains, but a very generalist approach is advised for this section when compared to Indian History. One of the fundamental things is that you should not focus too much on facts and figures, but try to develop an analytic frame of mind focused on the causes and consequences of the events. We will try our best to provide quality coverage of the topics.

World War 1: First World War (1914-1918)

At the turn of the 20th century, the nations of Europe had been largely at peace with one another for nearly 30 years. Efforts to outlaw war and achieve a permanent peace had been gaining momentum in Europe since the middle of the 19th century.

By 1900, hundreds of peace organizations were active. In addition, peace congresses convened regularly between 1843 and 1907. Some Europeans believed that progress had made war a thing of the past. Yet in a little more than a decade, a massive war engulfed Europe and spread across the globe.

World War I, also called First World War or Great War, an international conflict that in 1914–18 embroiled most of the nations of Europe along with Russia, the United States, the Middle East, and other regions.

The war was virtually unprecedented in the slaughter, carnage, and destruction it caused.

World War I was one of the great watersheds of 20th-century geopolitical history. It led to the fall of four great imperial dynasties (in Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey), resulted in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and, in its destabilization of European society, laid the groundwork for World War II.

Between 1864 and 1871, Prussia’s blood-and-iron chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, freely used the war to unify Germany. After 1871, however, Bismarck declared Germany to be a “satisfied power.” He then turned his energies to maintaining peace in Europe. Bismarck saw France as the greatest threat to peace. He believed that France still wanted revenge for its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

Bismarck’s first goal, therefore, was to isolate France. In 1879, Bismarck formed the Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary. Three years later, Italy joined the two countries, forming the Triple Alliance. In 1881, Bismarck took yet another possible ally away from France by making a treaty with Russia.

TRIPLE ALLIANCE- Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy

In 1890, Germany’s foreign policy changed dramatically. That year, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who two years earlier had become ruler of Germany forced Bismarck to resign.

Besides wanting to assert his own power, the new kaiser was eager to show the world just how mighty Germany had become.

Wilhelm began a tremendous shipbuilding program in an effort to make the German navy equal to that of the mighty British fleet. Alarmed, Great Britain formed an entente, or alliance, with France.

In 1907, Britain made another entente, this time with France and Russia, The Triple Entente. By 1907, two rival camps existed in Europe. On one side was the Triple Alliance—Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. On the other side was the Triple Entente—Great Britain, France, and Russia. A dispute between two rival powers could draw all the nations of Europe into war.

Causes of the First World War

There was no single event that caused World War I. The war happened because of several different events that took place in the years building up to 1914.

Web of Alliance – Europe was divided into various alliances. Germany was an ally of Austria and Russia of Serbia. Both entered into the Austria-Serbia war. Germany attacked France believing it to be a Russian ally. To protect Belgium (lying between France and Germany), Britain entered the war against Germany. Germany formed an alliance with the Ottoman Empire. Thus, one by one all major powers entered World War.

Imperial Rivalry – Due to the emergence of new powers such as Germany, there was a race to capture more colonies across the world – especially the colonial rivalry in Africa and the Middle East. Japan and Italy entered the war on the promise of colonial territories by the Allied Powers.

Militarism – As the world entered the 20th century, an arms race had begun. By 1914, Germany had the greatest increase in military buildup. Great Britain and Germany both greatly increased their navies in this time period. This increase in militarism helped push the countries involved in the war.

Naval Race – By 1914, Germany and Britain emerged as two supreme naval powers and competed against each other. Later, Lenin blamed capitalism as the root cause of WW I.

Nationalism – Much of the origin of the war was based on the desire of the Slavic peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina to no longer be part of Austria Hungary but instead be part of Serbia. In this way, nationalism led directly to the War.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was shot while he was visiting Sarajevo in Bosnia. He was killed by a Serbian person, who thought that Serbia should control Bosnia instead of Austria. Because its leader had been shot, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. As a result:

  • Russia got involved as it had an alliance with Serbia.
  • Germany then declared war on Russia because Germany had an alliance with Austria-Hungary.
  • Britain declared war on Germany because of its invasion of neutral Belgium – Britain had agreements to protect both Belgium and France.

Events like

  • Moroccan Crisis- 1905-06:
  • Bosnia Crisis-1908:
  • Agadir Crisis-1911:
  • Balkan War 1 and 2: 1912-13

Facing a war on two fronts, Germany had developed a battle strategy known as the Schlieffen Plan, named after its designer, General Alfred Graf von Schlieffen. The plan called for attacking and defeating France in the west and then rushing east to fight Russia.

The Germans felt they could carry out such a plan because Russia lagged behind the rest of Europe in its railroad system and thus would take longer to supply its front lines.

The Allies regrouped and attacked the Germans northeast of Paris, in the valley of the Marne River. After four days of fighting, the German generals gave the order to retreat. The defeat of the Germans left the Schlieffen Plan in ruins.

By early 1915, opposing armies on the Western Front had dug miles of parallel trenches to protect themselves from enemy fire. This set the stage for what became known as trench warfare. In this type of warfare, soldiers fought each other from trenches. And armies traded huge losses of human life for pitifully small land gains.

Life in the trenches was pure misery. “The men slept in the mud, washed in mud, ate mud, and dreamed mud,” wrote one soldier. The trenches swarmed with rats. Fresh food was nonexistent. Sleep was nearly impossible.

Even as the war on the Western Front claimed thousands of lives, both sides were sending millions more men to fight on the Eastern Front. This area was a stretch of battlefield along the German and Russian border. Here, Russians and Serbs battled Germans and AustroHungarians. The war in the east was a more mobile war than that in the west. Here too, however, slaughter and stalemate were common.

Early Fighting At the beginning of the war, Russian forces had launched an attack into both Austria and Germany. At the end of August, Germany counterattacked near the town of Tannenberg. During the four-day battle, the Germans crushed the invading Russian army and drove it into full retreat. More than 30,000 Russian soldiers were killed.

Russia fared somewhat better against the Austrians. Russian forces defeated the Austrians twice in September 1914, driving deep into their country. But Austria defeated the Russians later in December and eventually pushed them out of Austria-Hungary.

The Gallipoli Campaign

A promising strategy for the Allies seemed to be to attack a region in the Ottoman Empire known as the Dardanelles. This narrow sea strait was the gateway to the Ottoman capital, Constantinople. By securing the Dardanelles, the Allies believed that they could take Constantinople, defeat the Turks, and establish a supply line to Russia.

In various parts of Asia and Africa, Germany’s colonial possessions came under assault. The Japanese quickly overran German outposts in China. They also captured Germany’s Pacific island colonies. English and French troops attacked Germany’s four African possessions.

Elsewhere in Asia and Africa, the British and French recruited subjects in their colonies for the struggle. Fighting troops as well as laborers came from India, South Africa, Senegal, Egypt, Algeria, and Indochina. Many fought and died on the battlefield.

USA’s Entry into the War

In 1917, the focus of the war shifted to the high seas. That year, the Germans intensified the submarine warfare that had raged in the Atlantic Ocean since shortly after the war began. In January 1917, the Germans announced that their submarines would sink without warning any ship in the waters around Britain. This policy was called unrestricted submarine warfare.

The Germans had tried this policy before. On May 7, 1915, a German submarine, or U-boat, had sunk the British passenger ship Lusitania. The attack left 1,198 people dead, including 128 U.S. citizens. Germany claimed that the ship had been carrying ammunition, which turned out to be true. Nevertheless, the American public was outraged. President Woodrow Wilson sent a strong protest to Germany.

After two further attacks, the Germans finally agreed to stop attacking neutral and passenger ships.

Desperate for an advantage over the Allies, however, the Germans returned to unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917. Ignoring warnings by President Wilson, German U-boats sank three American ships.

In February 1917, another German action pushed the United States closer to war. Officials intercepted a telegram written by Germany’s foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, stating that Germany would help Mexico “reconquer” the land it had lost to the United States if Mexico would ally itself with Germany.

A large part of the American population already favored the Allies. In particular, America felt a bond with England. The two nations shared a common ancestry and language, as well as similar democratic institutions and legal systems. More important, America’s economic ties with the Allies were far stronger than those with the Central Powers. On April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. The United States entered the war on the side of the Allies.

By the time the United States joined the Allies, the war had been raging for nearly three years. In those three years, Europe had lost more men in battle than in all the wars of the previous three centuries. The war had claimed the lives of millions and had changed countless lives forever. The Great War, as the conflict came to be known, affected everyone. It touched not only the soldiers in the trenches but civilians as well.

War World War I soon became a total war. This meant that countries devoted all their resources to the war effort. In Britain, Germany, Austria, Russia, and France, the entire force of government was dedicated to winning the conflict. In each country, the wartime government took control of the economy. Governments told factories what to produce and how much.

Participation of Women: Thousands of women replaced men in factories, offices, and shops. Women built tanks and munitions, plowed fields, paved streets, and ran hospitals. They also kept troops supplied with food, clothing, and weapons. Although most women left the workforce when the war ended, they changed many people’s views of what women were capable of doing. Women also saw the horrors of war firsthand, working on or near the front lines as nurses.

Russian Revolution: In 1917 there were two revolutions in Russia – February Revolution and October Revolution.

The February Revolution led to the end of the rule of Czar and the establishment of a provisional government. The October Revolution resulted in the overthrowing of the provisional government in a coup by the Bolsheviks and the consequent establishment of a communist state of Russia.

As a result, Russia quit WW I (Bolsheviks were against Russian participation)

In November 1917, Communist leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin seized power. Lenin insisted on ending his country’s involvement in the war. One of his first acts was to offer Germany a truce. In March 1918, Germany and Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended the war between them.

From 1918-20 a civil war was fought between the Bolsheviks and the Whites (Mensheviks who wanted genuine democracy).

Bolsheviks emerged victorious and thus the communist revolution reached its stability in 1920.

Russia’s withdrawal from the war, at last, allowed Germany to send nearly all its forces to the Western Front. In March 1918, the Germans mounted one final, massive attack on the Allies in France. As in the opening weeks of the war, the German forces crushed everything in their path. Later, German forces started to weaken with time. The effort to reach the Marne had exhausted men and supplies. Sensing this weakness, the Allies with the aid of nearly 140,000 fresh U.S. troops launched a counterattack.

In July 1918, the Allies and Germans clashed at the Second Battle of the Marne. With the arrival of 2 million more American troops, the Allied forces began to advance steadily toward Germany.

Soon, the Central Powers began to crumble. First the Bulgarians and then the Ottoman Turks surrendered. In October, revolution swept through Austria-Hungary. In Germany, soldiers mutinied, and the public turned on the kaiser.

On November 9, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II stepped down. Germany declared itself a republic. A representative of the new German government met with the French Commander Marshal Foch in a railway car near Paris. The two signed an armistice, or an agreement to stop fighting. On November 11, World War I came to an end.

World War I was over. The terms of peace, however, still had to be worked out. On January 18, 1919, a conference to establish those terms began at the Palace of Versailles, outside Paris.

Despite representatives from numerous countries, the meeting’s major decisions were hammered out by a group known as the Big Four: Woodrow Wilson of the United States, Georges Clemenceau of France, David Lloyd George of Great Britain, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy. Germany and its allies were not given representation.

Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Point for Peace.

Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Point for Peace.

As the Paris Peace Conference opened, Britain and France showed little sign of agreeing to Wilson’s vision of peace. Both nations were concerned with national security. They also wanted to strip Germany of its war-making power.

The differences in French, British, and the U.S. aims led to heated arguments among the nations’ leaders. Finally, a compromise was reached. The Treaty of Versailles between Germany and the Allied powers was signed on June 28, 1919.

Adopting Wilson’s fourteenth point, the treaty created a League of Nations. The league was to be an international association whose goal would be to keep peace among nations.

Treaty of Versailles

Treaty of Versailles 1920

  • Loss of German territories – given away to France, Belgium, Poland
  • A union between Austria and Germany was forbidden
  • Germany’s African colonies were taken away
  • Disarmament of Germany and an upper ceiling put on German military strength
  • War guilt was put solely on Germany and made to pay a huge amount of war reparation which wrecked its economy (which was the aim of Britain and France so that Germany cannot become a threat in the near future)

Treaty of Sevres 1920

  • Ottoman Empire was broken down and territories were divided among allies
  • Ottoman Empire colonies were given to France (Syria) and Britain (Jordon, Iraq, Palestine)

Impact of World War I

  • The Peace Treaties – sowed seeds of resentment and humiliation among the Germans which would ultimately result in a second WW
  • League of Nations was created to ensure global peace and prevent another world war
  • The emergence of the US as one of the strongest economic and military powers post WW I
  • European economy suffered permanent damage and its decline began
  • Rise of new nation-states – Turkey, Hungary separated from Austria
  • The beginning of animosity between the West and Muslim world due to the treatment meted out to the Ottoman Empire – regarded as the Caliphate of the Muslim world.

League of Nations

  • League of Nations was envisaged as an international agency responsible for maintaining world peace
  • It was formed in 1920 with HQ in Geneva with 42 members. Germany granted membership in 1926
  • It worked on the principle of collective security. All member nations would collectively act against a belligerent nation. Actions would in the form of economic sanctions or military response
  • Economic and Social Work – Various organization were created within the LoN framework to undertake socio-economic development work across the world
  • Structure of LoN – It comprised of a Security Council (like UNSC), a General Assembly, Permanent Court of International Justice, Peacekeeping Mission and Separate Commissions to deal with specific problems such as health, labor, women rights, etc.

Success of League of Nations

  • The league was fairly successful in its socio-economic work through its commissions and committees
  • The International Labour Organization (ILO) was the most successful organization to come out of the League of Nations
  • The Refugee Organization helped Jews facing anti-semitic persecution in Germany in 1930s

Failure of League of Nations (LON)

  • Was perceived as an organization of the Allied Powers, especially France and Britain, set up only to see the implementation of post WW I ‘unjust’ peace policies.
    • Italy and Turkey were dissatisfied with the peace treaties. Turkey was angered at its territories were handed over to Greece and Italy was dissatisfied for not getting enough territorial gains as promised
    • The peace treaties were against the principle of self-determination as the territories of Central Powers (Germany etc.) were divided randomly with no concern for cultural and regional ties
  • LoN wasn’t a truly global organization – Major powers like the US, USSR didn’t join and Germany, Japan quit the league very soon
  • Failure of Disarmament – The League of Nation failed to convince other nations towards disarmament and only Germany was disarmed under the Treaty of Versailles. In 1932 Hitler demanded equal armament as France, but France declined. Hitler used this excuse to quit the League of Nations
  • It failed to implement the principle of collective responsibility – Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937, Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, etc. LoN failed to prevent such military aggressions. Contrary, Britain, and France followed the policy of appeasement towards these fascist nations
  • Economic Crisis of 1929 – LoN failed to foresee and prevent it
  • Conclusion – The League failed to implement its decisions where the verdict was against a major power. Aggressive regimes in Japan, Germany, and Italy defied the League. Britain and France did little to strengthen it and the Economic Crisis of 1929 reduced it to a mere idea.

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