The reason I use the original term ‘Great War’ instead of the conflict’s later name ‘World War I’ is simply to bring a little contemporary authenticity. The ‘great’ is not to hint at anything good, but merely to hint at the unimaginably large-scale fighting that took place. Between the period 1918 and 1939, it was generally believed that such a war could never happen again, hence the original name, though of course, this assessment was wrong.
What started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the Balkans quickly descended into tension between alliances, which then led to the first Europe-wide conflict since the Napoleonic Wars. Contrary to popular belief, Germany was not the instigator of the war, though it certainly became the major central power as the fighting progressed.
The Russian Empire, already riddled with internal strife, initially took the side of the British Empire and France, but in 1917 ended up imploding into revolution and then civil war. This tumultuous turn of events would lead to leftism spreading around the globe like never before. America, although initially hesitant to involve itself in a foreign military conflict, changed its mind after the Balfour Declaration and Zimmermann telegram, which was probably one of the most important intelligence interceptions in world history.
Although the fighting on the eastern front was mobile and brought decisive victories, the fighting on the western front descended into a stalemate and trench warfare ensued. The soldiers in France and Belgium probably experienced some of the worst conditions ever experienced by people in war, and only the introduction of coordinated air, artillery, tank and infantry tactics brought an end to the deadlock.
The war was not just in Europe of course; the Middle East theatre was very important and eventually led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, with the British Empire taking control of both Constantinople and Jerusalem, holding onto the latter until 1948. This would indirectly lead to the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, and also to the breakup of the region into small, unstable Islamic nations after the French and British eventually withdrew.
In the end, the introduction of American troops into the western front and a successful naval blockade of Germany by Britain led to an allied victory. The losses on all sides were horrific, with Britain and France suffering over a million fatalities, with Germany losing over 2 million. The German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire were all destroyed, and the map of the world was once again redrawn.
The aftermath of the war, including the treaty of Versailles, led to a muddled and tense situation in Europe and throughout the world. Populations found themselves on the wrong side of the fence, and the Spanish Flu pandemic, Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression made life very difficult.
With the world’s major powers now in possession of nuclear weapons, direct conflict between them remains unlikely. However, if the Great War is to teach us anything, it is that the greatest test is always yet to come, you can never see what is around the corner, nor how many will be killed as a result. If you want a good, first-hand account of the fighting in the Great War then I suggest you read Storm of steel by Ernst Junger. It is a phenomenal read and will give you a sense of both the physical and mental stresses caused by battlefield situations in the industrial age. Although it is only from a German perspective, Junger’s clear narration and blunt, realistic mindset are two of the reasons why the book is regarded as one of the best war diaries ever written.
Remember the Dead.