World War I was a global conflict that began in Europe on July 28, 1914 and soon spread across the world involving more than a 100 nations in some way or other. It went on for more than four years ending on November 11, 1918. Also known as the Great War, it pitted the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria against the Allies which was a coalition of many nations, most prominently the Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan and Italy. The First World War caused tens of millions of deaths with many more perishing due to resultant diseases and famines. It brought about many changes in world order with the collapse of several empires, revolutions in various parts of the world, the rise of new nation states and the emergence of the United States as a leading world power. Moreover, it led to millions of women entering the work force changing the pre-war gender-equation. Here are the 10 most important effects of the First World War.

 

#1 Ethnic Cleansing And Genocide

The Armenians had inhabited the Caucasus region of Eurasia for close to 3 millennia having taken up the Christian faith in the 4th Century AD. Over the years the region shifted hands among its neighboring empires, and in the 15th Century was occupied by the Ottomans; making them a small religious minority in an Empire ruled by the Muslims. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the decades leading up to WW1, suspicion against the Armenians grew and brutal action was taken against those who protested against the empire. Things came to a boil after the Ottoman defeat against the Russians in the Battle of Sarikamish in the early stages of World War I. On his return to Istanbul, Ottoman General Enver Pasha publicly blamed his defeat on Armenians, who were supposedly collaborating with the enemy.

Armenian Genocide report
New York Times headline on the Armenian Genocide, 15 December 1915

Armenian soldiers and other non-Muslims in the army were soon demobilized and killed by Ottoman troops while irregular forces began mass killings in the villages. Any resistance was used as a pretext for harsher measures and, on April 24, 1915, close to 250 Armenian politicians and intellectuals were arrested. Most scholars agree on the date, as the beginning of the Armenian Genocide that would involve the persecution of almost 1.5 million Armenians in the coming years. By the end of the Great War the Ottoman Empire was ethnically cleansed of 90 percent of its Armenian population. Similar pretexts were also used against the Assyrians and the Greeks. As of 2018, Turkey still denies genocide as an accurate term for the crimes while 29 countries have officially recognized the mass killings as genocide.

Armenian Genocide skulls
Skulls in ruined Armenian village of Sheyxalan, 1915

 

#2 Revolutions of 1917–1923

The period towards the end of WWI and in its aftermath saw an outburst of political unrest and revolts around the world. War weary Russia saw the February Revolution in 1917 which toppled the monarchy and forced the Tsar to abdicate. The provisional government thus formed was further overthrown by the Bolshevik Revolution of October, beginning the reign of communists in Russia. Inspired by the success of the Russian Revolutions and the political uncertainty of the time, many such uprisings took place around the world. In 1918 as the war ended a socialist revolution broke out in Germany, resulting in the creation of the left-leaning Weimar Republic, which lasted until Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party seized power in the early 1930s. Then there was the Irish War of Independence in 1919-20, the Hungarian Revolution in 1918-1920, the Egyptian Revolution in 1919, the Biennio Rosso in Italy and many other movements including colonial revolts in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia. These uprisings were mainly socialist or anti-colonial in nature and were mostly short-lived, failing to have a long-term impact.

Irish War of Independence soldiers
Soldiers of the IRA during the Irish War of Independence

 

#3 Lost Generation

World War I was a catastrophic event in terms of lives lost in the history of the world. Between 8 to 10 million died while fighting, one among eight combatants. Another 5 million civilians were also killed along with another 15 million seriously wounded and 7 million permanently disabled. Germany lost 15.1% of its active male population, Austria–Hungary lost 17.1%, and France lost 10.5%. In the early post-war period, among the major countries involved, it was difficult to find anyone who had not lost someone in the war. Approximately 65 million combatants from 28 countries fought in the conflict. There was great confusion and disillusionment among those that had returned. Most had gone to war believing in heroism and nobility but experienced a rude shock fighting in the trenches and experiencing the horrors of war. Europe had not seen a major war for a 100 years, and those who fought became known as “the Lost Generation” because they never fully recovered from the suffering.

Dying Soldier in a Trench (1915)
Dying Soldier in a Trench – 1915 painting by Willy Jaeckel

 

#4 Collapse of Four Great Empires

The economic, social, military and political pressures of WW1 proved to be the final death blow for four great monarchies and their empires. They were namely the Hohenzollern, the Habsburg, the Romanov and the Ottoman. These had dominated the political scene in Europe for centuries.

Romanov and the Russian Empire

The humiliating loss in the 1904-05 Russo Japanese War led to 1905 Russian Revolution; a long brewing discontent with the Russian social and political system. Tsar Nicholas II was thus forced to consider the transformation of the Russian government from an autocracy into a constitutional monarchy. However little changed on the ground and the resentment towards the ruling continued to rise. Russia’s poor performance in the Great War acted as a catalyst in quickly deteriorating the situation. Russia suffered heavy losses in men and territory and the social situation led to the Russian Revolutions of 1917. This ended the 300 year rule of the Romanovs with the rise of the Bolsheviks and a communist regime in Russia. The Romanov family was massacred in the process.

Revolutionaries attack during the 1917 February Revolution
Russian Revolutionaries attacking the Tzar’s police during the 1917 February Revolution

 

Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary

In the age of rising nationalism, Austria Hungary was struggling with a large ethnic population, especially the Slav nationalism in the Balkans. The problem would in fact lead to the assassination of AustroHungarian heir apparent Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb, an event that caused Austria Hungary to start the First World War. The Austro Hungarian Empire completely ceased to exist as the War ended in the defeat of the Central Powers. Centuries of Hapsburg rule in central Europe ended with their exile. Moreover, Austria and Hungary were separated and reduced to small states surrounded by new and often less than friendly countries.

Austria-Hungary in 1914 and current boundaries
Map showing Austria-Hungary in 1914 and current political boundaries

 

Hohenzollern and Imperial Germany

As the war ended with the defeat of the Central powers, Germany was blamed for the entire conflict. The Hohenzollern dynasty, which had been the ruling house of Prussia since 1415 AD and that of Imperial Germany since 1871, lost both their sovereignty in 1918. A wave of Marxist agitations spread across the falling empire, which were later suppressed by returning war veterans. Germany lost its colonies; large portions of territory to France and Poland; and was left humiliated in the Treaty of Versailles. Kaiser Wilhelm II went into exile in Netherlands where he remained till his last.

Treaty of Versailles German colonies map
German colonies made into League of Nations mandates by the Treaty of Versailles

 

The Ottoman Empire

With the death of Sultan Mehmed V in 1918, Sultan Mehmed VI presided over the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire under the Severes Treaty. The Arabic lands were divided among the British and the French and the Ottoman Empire was left to almost a fifth of the size of modern day Turkey. This led to a national revolt under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, against both Ottoman Empire and the Allies. The five year struggle known as the Turkish War of Independence led to the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 that superseded the Severes Treaty and established the Republic of Turkey. The monarchy was abolished and the last Sultan was exiled from Constantinople.

Turkish War of Independence painting
Painting depicting Turkish Army’s entry into Izmir during the Turkish War of Independence

 

#5 Rise of New Nation States

Though ethnic nationalism was on a rise for decades before WW1, the powerful and age old empires had the strength and resources to keep it in check. The Great War depleted the power of monarchs and as their Empires collapsed, new nations were born and were now able to survive in the new world order.

Treaty of Versailles Europe map
Map of Europe showing national boundaries established by the Treaty of Versailles (1919)

Austria-Hungary was split into Austria and Hungary and other independent states emerged from its territory, like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Russia and Germany gave land to Poland among other countries. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia gained independence from Russia along with Finland. Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan were established as independent states in the Caucasus region, but were over time absorbed into the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Palestine were declared mandates under the League of Nations. France essentially took control of Syria and Britain took control over the remaining three mandates. What was left of the Ottoman Empire became Turkey after the Turkish War of Independence.

 

#6 Millions of Women Enter The Workforce

The First World War was a pivotal moment in the impact of women’s role in society. As warring countries mobilized for war and later entered a state of ‘total war’, millions of men entered the military and armed services. The drain in the labor pool caused by the vacating servicemen created a vacuum that could only be filled by the women. This meant that significant number of women entered into jobs, even in areas where they were traditionally thought to be incompetent like heavy industry, munitions and police work.

British women workers during WW1
British women workers in a munitions factory during WW1

This was mostly viewed as a temporary situation and women were frequently forced out of jobs as the soldiers returned. But during the years between 1914 and 1918, women learned skills and independence, which would have long term benefits and consequences for those societies. Some women publicly embraced this new access to traditionally male occupations and were determined not to relinquish them when the war was over. There were others not keen on the new challenges and eager for a return to pre-war conditions. But the door had now opened and the beginning of a social change had begun.

French women workers during WW1
Women workers in a French war plant, 1916

 

#7 Emergence of United States As A World Power

With its vast resources and the advent of the second industrial revolution, America was a rising economic power in the decades preceding WWI. However Europe and its colonial empires had been for a few centuries the nerve center in the world. The Great War and particularly the year 1917, marked a turning point in world politics, which would come a full circle in the coming decades and in the aftermath of the Second World War. As war broke out in 1914 and prolonged, it began severely disrupting the European economies, allowing the United States to become the world’s leading creditor and industrial power. This became apparent in 1916 when European countries, especially Britain, placed larger and larger war orders with the U.S. Britain and France paid for these purchases by floating larger and larger bond issues to American buyers, denominated in dollars.

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson – American President during World War I

American President Woodrow Wilson had ensured that U.S. stayed neutral in the war; and his policy was partly responsible for his reelection in 1916. However, in the beginning of 1917 as Russia withdrew from the war, America’s financial and political interests prompted it to enter the war on the side of the Allies. A German general staff had perhaps rightly appraised American military strength as being somewhere “between Belgium and Portugal” A country with untapped military potential transformed with speed, turning into a large scale fighting force towards the end of the war. Its entry thus tilted the balance in the favor of the Allies in 1918. Consequently the United States became one of the major powers in the world.

U.S. enters World War 1 report
Boston Journal report of the United States entering World War 1

 

#8 Famines and Disease

Famines and diseases were common and flourished in the chaotic wartime conditions. A louse borne typhus epidemic claimed the life of 200,000 in Serbia in 1914. As Allied blockades suffocated its enemies another 200,000 deaths occurred in the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon (1915-1918) and 750,000 German civilians died from starvation. In Russia, the devastation caused by the War resulted in the 1921 famine killing anywhere between 5 to 10 million people and leaving 4.5 to 7 million homeless children. 3 million more died of typhus and 3.5 million of malaria. The most devastating was the worldwide influenza pandemic, also known as the Spanish Flu. It broke out in 1918, killing more people than the war itself. With death count at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people, it has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history.

Death Chart of Spanish flu
Death Chart of Spanish flu in major cities 1918-1919

 

#9 Treaty of Versailles and Seeds For WWII

The Treaty of Versailles was the peace treaty which effectively ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers after WW1. It was signed on 28 June 1919 in Versailles, Paris, five years to date of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The treaty was too harsh on the Germans, designed to humiliate a defeated enemy. Thus it lay seeds for a future conflict. Germany was required to accept the blame for all the loss and destruction caused during the war. This article, Article 231, later became known as the War Guilt clause. 13 percent of Germany’s European territory was taken away and it was required to renounce sovereignty over its former colonies, which came under Allied control in the League of Nations mandates.

Treaty of Versailles German colonies map
German colonies made into League of Nations mandates by the Treaty of Versailles

The treaty reduced Germany’s armed forces to very low levels and prohibited Germany from possessing certain classes of weapons. Adding to that, Germany was forced into accepting to pay $31.4 billion (£6.6 billion, roughly equivalent to US$442 billion or UK£284 billion in 2019) as reparations to certain countries that had formed the Entente powers. These enormous charges led to hyperinflation and massive unemployment in the country. The humiliation of the Treaty and the economic woes it brought led to the rise of the National Socialists (Nazis), which in turn led to World War II. Moreover, the two other future Axis Powers of WWII, Italy and Japan, had been with the Allies but were snubbed at the negotiating table after WWI, by the bigger powers Britain and France.

German protest against Treaty of Versailles
Mass demonstration in Berlin against the Treaty of Versailles

 

#10 Galvanized Technological Advances

The tremendous scale and scope of the First World War where the most powerful nations were in conflict, invited numerous new situations and challenges. The war was thus a time that brought forth numerous new technological advancements both on and off the fighting arenas. World War I introduced machine guns, modern artillery and airplanes to the battlefield. The horses were soon found to be ineffective and tanks entered service in 1916. Research in chemistry led to the discovery of the infamous poison gases and other means for chemical warfare. Moreover, arms and ammunition improved by leaps and bounds. In the waters, the war saw the deployment of submarines, aircraft carriers, hydrophones and depth charges while aviation received enormous attention and growth.

A tank at the Battle of the Somme
Tanks made their debut in late 1916 in the Battle of the Somme

With millions wounded or sick, advances were made in the field of medicine and surgery like mobile X-Ray machines, new medicinal drugs, antiseptics, anesthesia, sun lamps and facial reconstruction surgery. As the world went through a difficult time, many other day to day inventions were born out of necessity like the wristwatch, sanitary pads, stainless steel, tea bags, paper napkins, zips, drone and industrial fertilizer.

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