November 28, 2018

100 Years Since the End of World War I

imago/United Archives/Scanpix
The railway carriage in the woods at Compiègne in which the Western Front armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.
The railway carriage in the woods at Compiègne in which the Western Front armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.

The First World War created many new countries on the world map—Estonia among them

There are many ways to write about a war. Often people count the men that fought on both sides and the weapons, artillery, tanks, planes and ships; examine the most important battles and larger operations; list the number of armies, corps and divisions; identify the most famous generals and war heroes along with their accomplishments; count the fallen and map the results of the armistice and peace treaty that ended the war. For a war as big as WWI, all of this cannot be fit into even a longer-than-usual newspaper article. I will attempt here to depict once again Europe and the world in which the war broke out, and the new Europe and the world born as a result, all of this through the prism of the First World War.

European States Before WWI1

The Europe of the 19th century was reshaped by the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), which ended almost 25 years of Napoleonic wars. After the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, it was replaced by a German Confederation of over 30 sovereign states (including some where the head of state was the Emperor of Austria or the King of Prussia, the Netherlands or Denmark, whose main territories were not part of the Confederation). In the first half of the 19th century, the politics of continental Europe were directed by Austria, Russia and an increasingly powerful Prussia. Among new (“old” new) states, Greece became independent in 1830. Belgium seceded from the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the aftermath of the 1830–1 French Revolution; the country’s perpetual independence and neutrality were guaranteed by the great powers with the 1839 Treaty of London. The revolutions and uprisings of 1848–9 shook the entire continent from Paris to Bucharest and from Berlin to Rome. In the German Confederation, Austria, Russia and France, armies suppressed the rebellions. France, however, became a republic for the second time; Hungary proclaimed independence from Austria for a short period. The people of the German Confederation elected the Frankfurt National Assembly that produced a German constitution which was not recognised by larger Confederation states. The Frankfurt National Assembly was dissolved and its supporters dispersed by the army in the spring and summer of 1849.

Germany did not become a single state; Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians and Italians did not get a country of their own. (Estonian and Latvian peasants were soon given local self-government at parish level.) The formidable Prince Klemens von Metternich, chancellor and foreign minister of the Austrian Empire, who had run the country’s foreign policy since 1809, resigned. In 1862, Prince Otto von Bismarck was appointed foreign minister and would later become chancellor of the German Empire; he would continue to have a firm grip on the affairs of continental Europe almost until the end of the century. In Britain, Queen Victoria had ascended to the throne—a position she would hold until the beginning of the 20th century. Franz Joseph I became Emperor of Austria in 1848; he would pass away during WWI itself. In France, the revolution brought to power President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who proclaimed himself emperor in 1852. It looked like everything would continue as it always had.

Polish territory was split between Russia, Austria and Germany. Norway became independent in 1905. In East Asia, Japan rose to the status of great power after its invasion of Korea in the late 19th century, and (to the surprise of everyone in Europe, who had underestimated the Asian race) victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–5. Britain and France had large overseas colonial territories; from the late 19th century, Germany, the US, Italy and Japan also joined the colonial race.

Before WWI, the lower houses of European parliaments were already elected. Only men had the right to vote (except in Finland, where women were given the vote in 1906), and electoral rolls limited the number of voters. General suffrage changed politics. Whereas, in the past, parliament meant a discussion between land-owning conservatives and liberals supporting free trade and wider suffrage, now masses of votes enabled social democrats, radicals and labour party members to enter politics. In the 1912 elections for the German Reichstag, Social Democrats won over a third of the seats. In France, an alliance of radicals, Socialists and left-wing Republicans achieved a majority in 1902. Three years later, Catholic France finally separated the church from the state (this had been one of the demands during the 1789 revolution). However, worldwide working-class solidarity would not prevent the war, and even left-wing parties normally voted in favour of war credits.

On the political fringes were movements that used terrorism as their modus operandi. The targets were monarchs, heads of state and top officials: Emperor Alexander II of Russia in 1881, president Marie François Sadi Carnot of France in 1894, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary in 1898, King Umberto I of Italy in 1900, US president William McKinley in 1901, Russian prime minister Pyotr Stolypin in 1911 and King George I of Greece in 1913. The assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, by young Serbian terrorists was the trigger that started the world war.

People and Technology

In the 19th century, the birth-rate in most European countries was still high, but the development of medicine, healthcare and hygiene reduced child mortality. Big cities got enclosed water supplies and sewer systems, which put an end to large and deadly outbreaks of cholera, and vaccinations had reined in smallpox. Tuberculosis was a growing problem, since rapid industrial development increased the number of people living in unhealthy conditions in cities. Anyone with the money to do so moved to suburban villas; trams and cars made access to them easier than ever before.

The population grew rapidly: in 1871, the German Empire numbered 41 million; by 1910 it had grown to 65 million. In Russia, the population in 1870 was about 74 million; the 1897 census put it as over 125 million and in 1910 it was some 160 million. Population growth in France was slower: 36 million in 1872, rising to 40 million in 1911. Great Britain had over 31 million people in 1871 and 42 million in 1911. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had about 45 million people in 1900 and over 51 million in 1910. The global population was then about 1.8 billion, over a quarter of which lived in Europe. The US had 39 million people in 1870 and 92 million in 1910—the increase largely due to immigration from Europe.

In the second half of the 19th century, the world became smaller—Europe was covered by a growing railway network. Railways were used to transport armies in the European wars of the 1850s and the US Civil War in the early 1860s. The rail network was developed with mobilisation plans in mind. Telegraph and the telephone made the transmission of information faster than ever before. A single time was set nationwide, something that used to be unnecessary; now it was impossible to compile telegraph connections and train timetables without this. Cities had several deliveries of mail a day, which made it possible to exchange letters just like in the age of the internet; morning, noon and evening papers delivered the latest news to the people just as online media do today. Life was beautiful and the civilised world globalised. Industry and new technology made many men millionaires, sometimes several times over, just like today.

The need for educated people grew rapidly and the democratisation of the education system up to university level brought many first-generation scholars either among or to the doors of the elite—just like now. The currencies of the developed countries were linked to the gold standard and easily convertible. As long as you had the money for it, travel did not usually require a visa, just like now. Writers, artists and composers were defying the old rulebooks and created works that have, a century later, become part of general education. Their concerns—health, decadent lifestyles and excess both in private life and in the world of mind-numbing drugs—earned the increased attention of the tabloid press.2 Just like today. In the shadows were the representatives of ways of thinking and activists of extreme political movements, the outcomes of whose activities would be seen around the world in the mid- and late 20th century. Secret services worked to keep them more or less in check. The Soviet Union used the statistics from 1913 as a comparison point almost until the end of the USSR.

Just five years later, all of this lay in ruins. Millions of men had died or been injured on the battlefield; tens of millions were swept away by the Spanish Flu pandemic that followed the war. Europe was full of millions of widows, with children or without, whose chances of marrying again were almost nil.

France kept a worried eye on the growing German population. The French Revolution’s 1793 levée en masse (a call to citizens to come to the defence of their homeland) and the success of Napoleon’s armies served as an example which urged continental Europe in the 19th century to replace its permanent (recruit) armies with ones based on conscription and reservists, where, in the event of war, every able-bodied man was a soldier. The state’s ability to supply soldiers depended on the size of the population. General service duty unites the state and its people.

It was only during the world war itself that the realisation dawned that armies with modern weaponry and millions of troops also meant millions of war casualties. Whereas in the past the outcome of a war was decided by victory or defeat in a decisive battle and the losing side was forced to negotiate, now dead, wounded and crippled men were simply replaced by new ones. A French general, Charles Mangin, said at the end of the war, referring to the military operations: “Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men”.3 One hundred thousand Estonians—a tenth of the population—had to march off to war under Russian flags; and a tenth of them would never return.

Research and technology has always led to the development of military technology. Great powers were most capable when it came to combining scientific achievements and natural and human resources. Achievements in engineering, chemistry, metallurgy and machinery gave the armies smokeless gunpowder and mass-produced breech-loading rifles that were fast, accurate and lethal and shot far. Artillery pieces began to be made of steel instead of bronze, and smokeless powder in charges, TNT as the explosive in shells, and recoil mechanisms helped to increase their calibre, range, precision and destructive force. Germany had the most powerful heavy artillery; other countries still used lighter artillery in support of the infantry. Strong fortification lines with hundreds of concrete bunkers, artillery positions and pillboxes could withstand the artillery strikes of the time. During the war, a great number of new weapons were introduced: machine guns, mortars, tanks, military aircraft and gas. The internal combustion engine had been put on wheels a long time before, but most military transport still relied on railways and horses. Field telephones and radio communication were used in WWI.

Agreements and Alliances4

Bismarck’s goal was to prevent Germany from fighting on two fronts. Its main adversary was France. In 1873, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary entered into the Union of the Three Emperors. However, relations with Russia cooled in 1878, as the country viewed the decisions of the Congress of Berlin on the Balkan issue as unfavourable. In the Balkan region, the interests of Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary collided; the last of these was supported by Germany, while the Ottoman Empire received occasional support from the British and French. Russia supported fellow Slavs living under Ottoman oppression and had for centuries dreamt of taking Constantinople. In 1879, Germany and Austria-Hungary entered into the Dual Alliance; in 1882 they were joined by Italy and in 1883 Romania. In 1881, Bismarck managed to revive the Three Emperors’ Union, but it lapsed in the mid-1880s as a result of the conflicting interests of Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkan region. In 1887, Germany and Russia signed the secret Reinsurance Treaty, in force for three years, which provided that each party would remain neutral if the other became involved in a war with a third great power, though this would not apply if Germany attacked France or if Russia attacked Austria. However, three years later the Kaiser fired Bismarck, and the new heads of German foreign policy decided not to extend the agreement. Russia grew closer to France and entered into a treaty with it in 1894—for Germany, this meant war on two fronts.

Relations between Britain and France were tense over colonial issues. However, Germany’s forceful policies made them come to an agreement in 1904 (the Entente Cordiale). After Russia and Britain had laid down their spheres of interest in the Middle East, the three countries signed the Triple Entente agreement. At the start of the war in August 1914, Germany entered into a secret agreement with the Ottoman Empire, which declared armed neutrality but a few months later entered the war on the side of the Central Powers. In 1915, the previously neutral Italy entered the war in support of the Triple Entente, breaking its treaty with the Central Powers. Italy was promised Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian territories after the war. (This did not happen, a fact which in the early 1920s became one of Benito Mussolini’s domestic policy trump cards.)

In truth, this network of alliances made war inevitable: Russia supported Serbia, to whom Austria-Hungary sent a harsh ultimatum after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and consultations with Germany, which Serbia could not accept. The alliances forced partners to mobilise, and the general mobilisation of huge armies could not be reversed. Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the Central Powers in 1915 during the Gallipoli campaign, followed by Romania in August 1916, in support of the Triple Entente—only to be swiftly defeated by the Central Powers. The US joined the Triple Entente in April 1917, and its fresh forces and resources eventually decided the outcome of the war on the Western Front.

Battle Plans

Every country had a plan for the consequent war. France was concerned about an increasingly powerful Germany. Placing their hopes on Belgium’s neutrality, France fortified its border with Germany from Luxembourg to Switzerland. In the event of war, this was supposed to be the focus of the French army’s main forces with the goal of winning back the territories of Alsace and Lorraine, which had been lost in the Franco-Prussian war. German diplomacy failed to prevent a war on two fronts—something previous rulers and strategies had warned it about. By 1905 Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the Imperial German General Staff, had devised a battle plan that consisted of defeating France and taking Paris before Russia could complete its mobilisation, in order to then direct all of Germany’s forces against Russia. The only possibility for doing this was to have the main forces attack Belgium, violating its neutrality, in the hope that it would offer no resistance. The plan was set in motion by Schlieffen’s successor, Helmuth von Moltke. Nothing ever goes according to plan. Belgium began to resist and its modern fortifications slowed Germany’s assault. The violation of Belgium’s neutrality and its alliance with France pulled Britain into the war. Russia managed to mobilise its forces and invade East Prussia, but after initial success it suffered defeat.

The Russian assault on Austria-Hungary was more successful. The latter aimed its main attack on Serbia, which offered more resistance than was expected. On the Western Front, the situation had become deadlocked by the autumn of 1914. The Austro-Hungarian army had no success against either the Russians or the Serbs, and Turkey could not pull many of the Triple Entente’s forces away from other fronts; in addition, Britain had plenty of forces from India that were not accustomed to fighting in the European climate. A large part of the military burden on the side of the Central Powers, both on the Western and the Eastern fronts, as well as partly in the Balkan Peninsula and Italy, was shouldered by Germany.

On the Western Front, the German, French, British and Belgian armies, alongside smaller allied units, had become stuck in trench warfare in northern France and Belgium as early as the autumn of 1914. Trenches and dugouts were made deeper and deeper, and thousands of lives were sacrificed in order to advance just a few kilometres, only to lose these same kilometres in enemy counteroffensives that took thousands of lives on the other side. This continued for four years.

Russia’s initial success in 1914 turned into a large-scale retreat in 1915, and the German army reached the River Daugava. Russia lacked arms and resources, and Germany had cut off its sea connection with France and Britain. In February 1915, the Triple Entente countries launched an invasion on the Gallipoli (today also known as Gelibolu) Peninsula between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara, with the aim of taking Constantinople, opening up access to the Black Sea and the Balkan front and forcing Turkey to withdraw from the war. The battles on the narrow strip of land lasted for almost a year, and resulted in several hundred thousand dead and wounded Entente and Turkish soldiers (many of the former were Australian or New Zealanders), but Turkish resistance was unbreakable and the invasion was a failure.

On the Italian front, Italy fought a total of 12 battles in 1915–17 on the River Isonzo against Austrian and German forces, without major success; in the end Italy suffered a crushing defeat at the battle of Caporetto in October 1917. Russia was successful against Turkey in the Caucasus; Turkey had initial success against the British Empire in Mesopotamia. In Africa, the war was in German colonies. After initial success, the German fleet was defeated in late 1914 near the Falkland Islands. This was indeed a world war.

Victory or defeat was not decided in the trenches. The Triple Entente’s weakest link was Russia: by 1917, the country was in economic chaos and cities were at risk of starvation. Emperor Nicholas II was overthrown, but even the Provisional Government was unable to stabilise the country. German military intelligence helped to smuggle into St Petersburg the Bolshevik leaders, whose slogans of “Peace, bread and land” spoke to workers, soldiers, peasants and scholars alike. In November they seized power and, after some resistance, in March 1918 fulfilled their promise to Germany by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers. Eastern Europe felt that Germany had won the war. Finns, Estonians, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, the peoples of the southern Caucasus and some others declared independence, either with support from and recognition by Germany or without. Before the peace agreement, Germany had occupied Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states. The Baltic Germans began to create their own United Baltic Duchy and called for a ruler from Germany. The same was done by Finland, Lithuania and others. Estonians and Latvians would have had no future in the Baltic Duchy.

The number of Baltic Germans was so small that a state governed by them could not be run by a democratically elected assembly. In May 1918, the Estonian foreign delegation received de facto support from Britain, and later also France and Italy, for the temporary Estonian Provincial Assembly as the representatives of the Estonian people. Anything that would undermine Germany’s rear in the occupied territories was useful to the Western powers. However, they also had to take into account the position of Russia’s White Army, which hoped to topple the Bolsheviks and restore Russia in its former borders. At that time, Finland was Germany’s true ally. In May 1918, the Finnish civil war was over and the Baltic division under Rüdiger von der Goltz had driven the Red Army out of Helsinki. The empires’ larger minority nations were a potential source of trouble. Germany and Austria hoped to make use of Poland’s historical dislike of Russia and allowed Józef Piłsudski to form Polish legions in the parts of Poland under Austrian rule, offering vague promises of independence. Indeed, in 1916 the Regency Kingdom of Poland was announced in Russia’s Polish territories with its capital in Warsaw. The plan was to build up its army based on the Polish legions. However, when Germany and Austria demanded Polish troops swear an oath of allegiance to Wilhelm II in the summer of 1917, the majority of Polish Legions under Piłsudski and some other high-ranking officers refused. Many were sent to prison camps.

Tens of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks in the Austro-Hungarian army were taken prisoner on the Russian and Italian fronts, or defected. In Russia, they formed a Czech corps, which, according to the Entente, was supposed to be sent to the Western Front on trains through Siberia and by sea. However, in 1918, Soviet Russia was a de facto ally of the Central Powers, who were not interested in tens of thousands of new soldiers on the Western Front. The embarkation became bogged down, and Czechs and Slovaks took control of a large part of the Siberian railway and started fighting against the Red Army. They only got back to their homeland from Vladivostok after the end of the war. Czech and Slovak regiments were also formed in Italian POW camps. After the armistice, these became the basis of the Czechoslovakian army.

In January 1918 the US president, Woodrow Wilson, presented his idealistic vision of the post-war world, the so-called “Fourteen Points”. Among other things, he promised the restoration of occupied countries, autonomy or independence for peoples in the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and the restoration of Poland with access to the sea. Two months earlier, Lenin’s government had adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia, which promised them the right to free self-determination, including secession and formation of a separate state. Both declarations had a tactical goal when it came to minority peoples: to undermine their support for the enemy (the Central Powers and the White Russian army, respectively).

On the Western Front, the outcome of the war was decided by the arrival of US troops. The great German assault from March to July 1918 brought another half-million casualties for Germany, France, the US and Britain, but no success. German resources were drained. In August, the Entente armies launched a counterattack. By November, both sides had lost a further one million men dead, wounded or captured. On 29 September, the heads of the Imperial German Army notified the Kaiser and chancellor of the hopeless situation on the front, and in early October Germany proposed an armistice to the Entente powers. In October, Austria-Hungary fell and the Ottoman Empire signed an armistice. When an uprising began in Germany’s towns and naval bases, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated on 9 November. Germany became a republic, whose representatives signed the armistice at Compiègne on 11 November.

The Consequences of the War

The war was over, but final peace agreements were only signed at the Paris Peace Conference that began in 1919. During the conference, the League of Nations was formed and tasked with maintaining peace in the future. The League was the initiative of president Wilson, but it did not gain the support of Congress and the US never joined. Separate peace treaties were made with Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. Germany was blamed for causing the war, and had to pay the harshest reparations and disband its army, fleet and general staff, and give up Alsace and Lorraine, Schleswig and parts of Silesia and Prussia. The Weimar Republic never achieved stability and Hitler came to power in 1933. Soviet Russia gained international recognition in time, was accepted into the League of Nations and, together with Hitler’s Germany, was one of the main players in WWII that started in 1939. America never managed to stay away from European affairs and in the bipolar Cold War era became the leader and military guarantor of one side.

In Eastern Europe, Poland was restored and a number of new countries—from Finland to Yugoslavia—were created. Relations between the young and restored states were tense, with even Finland and Sweden on the brink of war over the Åland Islands, as were Estonia and Latvia over the town of Valga, not to mention smaller conflicts and wars between Poland and Czechs and Slovaks, Lithuania and Germany, Romania and Hungary, Yugoslavia and Italy, Turkey with Greece and Armenia, and others. The minority peoples lived in the empires often in mixed communities, and conflicts caused by newly drawn borders created tensions, as they do in international relations even today (as Europe saw in the bloody Yugoslavia wars of the 1990s).

Soviet Russia saw a future in world revolution and the West saw Bolshevik propaganda among its war-torn and starving people as a real threat. Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland stood up to Soviet Russia and are now celebrating the centenary of the creation (or restoration) of their states. Other peoples that declared independence from Russia would have to wait until the fall of the Soviet Union.


1 On this topic, see e.g. recently published thorough approaches to 19th-century history: Richard J. Evans, The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815–1914, London: Allen Lane, 2016; Jürgen Osterhammel, Die Verwandlung der Welt: Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts, Munich: C. H. Beck, 2016 (first published 2009). (English edition: The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

2 This is also discussed by Florian Illies in his book 1913:The Year Before the Storm, London: The Clerkenwell Press, 2013. (Estonian edition 1913: sajandi suvi, Tallinn: Tänapäev, 2017).

3 David Murphy, “The French Army in 1918” in Matthias Strohn (ed.), 1918: Winning the War, Losing the War, Oxford: Osprey, 2018, p. 74.

4 Barbara W. Tuchman’s half-century-old classic The Guns of August is available in Estonian as Augustikahurid (2nd edition), Tallinn: Varrak, 2006.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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