World War I - A Brief Introduction
World War I began in July 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and soon Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and France were all drawn in. This was largely because they were involved in treaties that obligated them to defend certain other nations. Western and eastern fronts quickly opened along the borders of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
In the west, Germany attacked first Belgium and then France. In the east, Russia attacked both Germany and Austria-Hungary. In the south, Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia. Following the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, the western front became entrenched in central France and remained that way for the rest of the war. The fronts in the east also gradually locked into place.
The middle part of the war, 1916 and 1917, was dominated by continued trench warfare in both the east and the west. Soldiers fought from dug-in positions, striking at each other with machine guns, heavy artillery, and chemical weapons. Though soldiers died by the millions in brutal conditions, neither side had any substantive success nor gained any advantage. The Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest military battles in history, began in July 1916 and ended a little over four months later after the first use of tanks and a change in approach to fighting on the Western Front.
Despite the stalemate on both fronts in Europe, two important developments in the war occurred in 1917. In early April, the United States, angered by attacks upon its ships in the Atlantic, declared war on Germany. Then, in November, the Bolshevik Revolution prompted Russia to pull out of the war.
Although both sides launched renewed offensives in 1918 in an all-or-nothing effort to win the war, both efforts failed. The fighting between exhausted and demoralized troops continued to plod along until the Germans lost a number of individual battles and very gradually began to fall back. A deadly outbreak of influenza, meanwhile, took heavy tolls on soldiers of both sides. Eventually, the governments of both Germany and Austria-Hungary began to lose control as both countries experienced multiple mutinies from within their military structures.
Many thousands of British soldiers were killed on the Western Front. In Ypres, one in three of Britain's Western Front dead fell by 1918. In nine days British, French and US forces crossed the Canal du Nord and broke through the Hindenburg Line. The war ended in the late fall of 1918, after the member countries of the Central Powers signed armistice agreements one by one. Germany was the last, signing its armistice on November 11, 1918.