The assassination of the Archduke of Austria and his wife (1914) provided the Austrians with a great reason to get rid of the nationalist Serbians once and for all. However, they needed German help because the Russians had sided with the Serbs. The Germans gave them what is known as the “blank check.”
Following the acceptance of the “blank check”, Austria gave the Serbians an ultimatum: meet our list of demands or we’ll wage war. They gave the Serbs forty-eight hours to respond. The Serbs agreed to most of the demands, but not to all minute details, so the Austrians waged war. Austria invaded the Serbian states and World War I began.
The several countries that entered the war all had different reasons. France wanted territories from Germany, namely Alsace-Lorraine. The British wanted to deal with the threat of a growing Germany. Germany itself wanted to expand, and of course help the Austrians defeat the Serbs. Italy joined the Triple Entente (France, Britain and Russia) and fought for their causes in 1915. Russia* wanted to help their fellow Slavs.
Germany feared a two-front war (Russia and France vs. Germany) and therefore developed a plan to avoid this—namely the Schlieffen Plan. The strategy was to first rapidly attack and defeat the French and then return to fight the Russians. This plan was dependent, however, on the fact that the Russian army was not modernized and was slow to mobilize.
The Schlieffen Plan was put into effect early in the war. The Germans, in order to reach France, needed to cross through neutral (as decided in the Congress of Vienna) Belgium. However, after meeting with resistance there they were behind schedule. As the German army reached France, Russia attacked Prussia. The Germans met with unexpected military prowess on the part of the French and were forced to retreat into a defensive position. The battle then developed into trench warfare. The Schlieffen Plan had failed.
The Serbs surprised the Austrians with their proving to be a not-so-easy-to-defeat power as the Austrians had previously thought. The Serbs attacked and briefly routed the Austrian army.
Three major battles in WWI were,
- Battle of Gallipoli: the first amphibious battle in the war.
- Battle of Verdun (1916): The Germans wanted to gain a French stronghold, but only succeeded in getting a few square miles. They suffered 350,000 casualties.
- Battle of the Somme (late 1916): famous because the British lost over 60,000 men on the first day.
A military strategy advanced by the British was the hunger blockade on Germany. They placed mines all around the German ports, thereby blowing up all watercraft coming into a German port. This was a violation of international law, which only allowed close blockades, rather than distant ones (with the use of mines). The intention of the blockade was in British terms, “…to starve all men, women and children, old and young, weak and strong, soldier or civilian, rich or poor, into submission.”
The German counter-move was to instigate submarine warfare in British waters (1915). This also violated international law. The Germans said that all ships would be attacked and sunk, even those with neutral flags. The reason for the attack on neutral ships was because the British had “misused the neutral flag laws.” They said this because the British had disguised their war ships as “neutral” ships and fought.
It was at this point that United States President Woodrow Wilson entered the scene. He declared that the neutral American citizens should be protected. He further stated that all Americans who were sailing on belligerent ships, even those carrying weapons and ammunition, should be protected and not attacked.
Two incidents followed: the sinking of the Lusitania and the sinking of the Sussex. The sinking of the Lusitania (a luxury passenger liner carrying ammunition) occurred in May of 1915. The Germans had previously warned all Americans not to sail aboard it because it would be attacked. The warning went unheeded. The result was that 1200 of the 2000 passengers died and almost all Americans on board perished.
Wilson’s response to Germany was that they were fully responsible and he re-asserted the neutral American’s “rights.”
When the Sussex was sunk, after the Germans mistook it for a warship, Wilson told Germany: “Stop all submarine warfare or we will sever all diplomatic relations.”
Following this was the proposal of the Sussex pledge (1916), an offer made by the Germans to Wilson. It stated that they would not sink any merchant/passenger ships without first warning them and evacuating the passengers, as long as the ship did not fire any shots and no warships appeared on the horizon. However, there was a condition to this pledge: Wilson had to pressurize the British to stop their hunger blockade. Wilson refused. It was clear that although he was supposedly neutral Wilson was partial to Britain.
There were protests against Wilson’s neutral rights policies in America. Two were voiced by Senators Wesley Jones and Robert LaFollete. They said that all who went aboard those ships in war-waters were going at their own risk. They also said that Wilson should protect the lives of millions Americans by not risking war by protecting the fools who went aboard the belligerent ships.
The Gore-McLemore resolution was a non-binding resolution offered to the U.S. Senate saying that the President should warn all those who wished to travel through war zones that they were doing so at their own risk. However, Wilson pressurized the Senate to vote it down and it was indeed voted down.
A major factor in getting the Americans into the war was the German decision to go into all-out submarine warfare, not even protecting neutral ships. Although this went against the Sussex pledge, the Germans felt that the pledge was not valid because Wilson had never agreed to the condition.
Due to the German’s intense submarine warfare, the U.S. ship captains were reluctant to sail in the war-waters. However, Wilson armed the ships with naval equipment and sent them off. If they were attacked it would be a perfect excuse to enter the war.
After appearing before Congress to approve his declaration, United States President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in April of 1917. The general American public didn’t approve of this, therefore the government was forced to draft an army. By 1918 the Americans were a substantial force in World War I.
Wilson’s goal was to influence a “peace without victory”—a peace in which the loser didn’t lose everything and the winner didn’t gain everything. It was a peace that would not “lead to more war.” In 1918 Wilson also presented his Fourteen Points, which were several ‘reforms’ that Wilson hoped to enact in case of a peace. Wilson also wanted the League of Nations, who would help each other in case of war and other difficulties.
The war began to wind down in 1918 and by November of that year the Germans surrendered and asked for peace. However, the hunger blockade remained in effect until March of 1919. World War I had finished, although final peace would not be established until after the Paris Peace Conference.
*Russia would withdraw from the war in early 1918 due to the Russian Revolution.