World War I was a global conflict fought between the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria; and the Allies which was a coalition of many nations, most prominently the Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan and Italy. It began on July 28, 1914 and ended on November 11, 1918. The major events of the First World War in 1915 include the Gallipoli Campaign; the first large scale use of poison gas; the beginning of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire; and the sinking of Lusitania. In 1916, the most important events include the Battle of Verdun; the First Battle of Somme; the Battle of Jutland; and the beginning of the Arab Revolt in the Ottoman Empire. Here are the 10 most important events of the First World War which took place in 1915 and 1916.

 

#1 Long Stalemate on the Western Front

Date: 1915 – 1917

The First Battle of Marne had resulted in halting any further advance of Germany into French territory. A counter attack by the Allies had made the Germans withdraw to the Aisne river. The First Battle of Aisne in September 1914, would see an unsuccessful Allied effort to outflank and decisively defeat the Germans. This bloody stalemate would set the tone for the rest of the war on the western front. Both sides were unable to strike a decisive blow and would instead begin to dig trenches.

Germans at the Battle of the Aisne
German entrenched position during the Battle of the Aisne

With the unexpected development of trench warfare, both sides gave up frontal assaults and began trying to envelop each other’s northern flank. This month long “Race to the Sea” saw numerous engagements ending with the First Battle of Ypres. The western front thus became a continuous trench system of more than 400 miles (640 km) from the North Sea coast of Belgium to the northern Swiss border. This stalemate would last throughout 1915 – 1917, and numerous unsuccessful attempts would be made to break through enemy lines. The most notable of them were at the Battle of Somme and the Battle of Verdun.

 

#2 Battle of Verdun And First Battle of Somme

Battle of Verdun

Date: February – December, 1916

Fought primarily between the French and German armies, the Battle of Verdun was the longest and most devastating battle fought during the First World War. The battle began on February 21, 1916 when the German 5th Army attacked the French defensive positions on the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France. The Germans were initially successful but the battle was a stalemate as French counter-attacks returned matters near to the starting point. The battle lasted for 303 days, with 700,000 to 975,000 casualties counting both sides. Close to 140,000 Germans and 160,000 Frenchmen lost their lives.

Battle of Verdun Human Remains
Human Remains from the Battle of Verdun

First Battle of Somme

Date: JulyNovember, 1916

The First Battle of Somme was fought between 1st of July and 18th November, 1916 on the upper reaches of the River Somme in France. A major Franco-British attack over the Germans, the offensive was unable to achieve any major breakthrough in close to 5 months of fighting, ending in another stalemate. The Somme Offensive is counted among the bloodiest battles in history, with estimated 420,000 British, 200,000 French and 500,000 German casualties. The opening day of the battle was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. They suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead.

British soldiers in the Battle of the Somme
British soldiers leaving their trenches in the Battle of the Somme

 

#3 Allies Attack Turkey in the Gallipoli Campaign

Date: February 1915 – January 1916

With the stalemate on the western front, the Allies were considering an offensive in another region of the conflict. After the Turkish attack on Russian ports in late October of 1914 and the Russians declaring war on the Ottomans on 2nd November, Russia’s Grand Duke Nicholas had requested British assistance in early 1915. With an eye on controlling the Mediterranean, a naval expedition was thus planned by Britain and France to seize the Dardanelles Straits.

Allied fleet in the Gallipoli Campaign
The Allied fleet in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli Campaign

The offensive began in February of 1915, when the Allies attacked Dardanelles with their battleships. The attack proved to be a failure with Turkish fire sinking 3 ships in a single day and damaging many others. An amphibious landing was then planned with troops from New Zealand, Australia, India, France and Britain wading ashore at five beaches in Gallipoli in April and May, and again on 6th August at Sulva Bay. The Allies suffered close to 200,000 casualties in the long campaign and, by November, they had decided to evacuate their 105,000 remaining troops. The evacuation ended in January 1916, giving the Ottomans their only major victory in World War I.

 

#4 First Large Scale Use of Poison Gas

Date: April 22, 1915

In August 1914, the French first used tear inducing gas, ethyl bromoacetate (CH2BrCO2C2H5), in WW1. As the war progressed various chemical weapons would be used by either side, and over 50,000 tons of pulmonary, lachrymatory and vesicant agents would be deployed by the conflicting countries. Though there is evidence that the Germans used chlorine as a chemical weapon before 2nd January 1915, it was the Second Battle of Ypres of 22nd April, 1915, that saw the first full scale deployment of a deadly chemical weapons in WWI when the Germans attacked the Allied troops with cholrine.

“In other war theatres it does not go better and it has been said that our Chlorine is very effective. 140 English officers have been killed. This is a horrible weapon …”

Excerpt from a letter by Major Karl von Zingler; often cited as an evidence that chlorine was used before January 1915

Australian soldiers in the Second Battle of Ypres
Australian soldiers wearing gas masks during the Second Battle of Ypres, 1915

The use of poison or poisoned weapons were forbidden as per the Hague Convention of 1907, but both sides would continue to use and invest in chemical weapons during WW1. The weapons would range from lachrymal and irritants like chloroacetone, xylyl bromide, lewisite, Clark I and II to more life threatening phosgene and Mustard Gas. Official figures declare about 1.3 million casualties directly caused by chemical warfare agents during the course of the war which includes 10 – 20 percent civilians.

 

#5 Armenian Genocide

Date: April 24, 1915 – 1918

In the January of 1915, the Ottomans attempted to push back the Russians in the Battle of Sarikamish. This endeavour under Ottoman leader Enver Pasha was a disaster with Ottoman troops suffering major casualties in the severe winter conditions. On his return to Istanbul, Pasha publicly blamed his defeat on Armenians, who were supposedly collaborating with the enemy. Though atrocities against the Armenian Christians were not uncommon, the Battle of Sarikamish is cited as the prelude to the Armenian genocide or systematic killing of a population.

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 had ethnically cleansed 90 percent of its Armenian population. 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

 

#6 Sinking of Lusitania

Date: May 7, 1915

Germany was under a naval blockade since the commencement of WW1. The entire North Sea was declared as a War Zone by the Royal British Navy while the Germans declared the seas around United Kingdom as War Zones. Lusitania was a British passenger ship that was sunk on May 7, 1915 by a torpedo from a German U-boat (submarine), close to the south coast of Ireland. The sinking of this ocean liner killed over a 1000 civilians including women and children and Germany was accused of breaching international cruiser rules by sinking a defenceless non-military ship. The Germans justified their attack arguing that Lusitania was carrying hundreds of tons of war munitions and was hence a legitimate military target. The event was vital in shifting the public opinion against Germany in neutral countries, especially the United States; which had lost 128 of its citizens onboard the ship. It was thus a factor in United States declaring war on Germany 2 years later.

Lusitania sinking painting
Painting depicting the 1915 sinking of RMS Lusitania

 

#7 Italy joins the war on the side of the Allies

Date: May 23, 1915

Since 1882, Italy was in the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany. However in 1902, Italy had made another secret pact with the French, agreeing to stay neutral if Germany declared war on France. At the break of WWI, Italy refused to provide assistance to Germany and Austria Hungary citing that their alliance was defensive and that Austria Hungary was the aggressor. The Austro-Hungarians were now making efforts to keep Italy neutral in the war, but the Allies succeeded in convincing Italy in the secret Treaty of London of April 1915. A month later, Italy declared war on Austria Hungary.

The Battle of Doberdo
Depiction of the Battle of Doberdo, fought in August 1916 between Italy and Austria-Hungary

 

#8 Invasion and defeat of Serbia, Bulgaria enters WW1

Date: October 6 – December 31, 1915

The successful Gorlice Tarlow offensive against Russia in 1915, now gave the Central Powers the breathing space to focus on Serbia. On 6th October, 1915 the German and Austro Hungarian forces crossed the Danube and Save rivers, invading Serbia under the leadership of General August von Mackensen. Belgrade fell three days later on the 9th, forcing the Serbian government to flee to the city of Nisch.

German field marshal August von Mackensen
German field marshal August von Mackensen – Who successfully led the Serbian Campaign

Meanwhile both the Central and Allied powers were persuading Bulgaria to join the war on their sides. Bulgaria’s recent conflicts with the Serbians, and Allied losses in Gallipoli and Gorlice campaigns, convinced the Bulgarian King Ferdinand to join the Central powers. On 23rd September 1915, Bulgaria began mobilizing for war, invading the Serbian eastern border on the 11th of October and their First Army taking Nisch in early November. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian Second Army cut off the Allied help from the south forcing the Serbian forces to retreat.

Bulgarian soldiers in World War I
Mobilization of Bulgarian soldiers for World War I

On 25th November, Serbian Field Marshall Radomir Putnikwere ordered full retreat south and west through Montenegro and into Albania. This was a great victory for the Central Powers at a cost of around 67,000 casualties, as compared to around 90,000 Serbs killed or wounded and 174,000 captured. The railroad from Berlin to Istanbul was finally a reality with the first train from Berlin arriving in Constantinople on 1st January, 1916.

 

#9 Battle of Jutland

Date: May – June, 1916

With the beginning of WWI, the Allies had imposed a naval blockade on Germany. Aware of the British naval strength and outnumbered in battleships, German Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer planned to lure out, trap and destroy a portion of the Grand Fleet. This led to the largest naval engagement of World War I, from 31st May to 1st June, off the North Sea coast of Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula. The Germans lost close to 2500 men, 1 pre-dreadnought, 1 battlecruiser, 5 light cruisers, 6 destroyers and 1 submarine while approximately 6,000 British lives were lost along with 3 battlecruisers, 3 armored cruisers and 8 destroyers. Both sides claimed victory in battle. The British had lost more ships and twice as many sailors but they had succeeded in containing the German fleet; which would thereon focus their energies on submarine warfare.

Destruction of HMS Queen Mary at the Battle of Jutland
Destruction of Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary at the Battle of Jutland

 

#10 The Arab Revolt in Ottoman Empire

Date: June 1916 – October 1918

Arab nationalism in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t a new happening but it had never been a mass movement. The nationalists wanted independence from the Ottomans and dreamt of creating a single unified Arab state stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen. With the Ottoman Turks joining Germany in the First World War and the failure of the Allies in the Gallipoli campaign, Britain began getting interested in inciting and backing a revolt in Ottoman’s own territory. Hussein bi Ali, a renowned Hashemite Arab leader and the Sharif of Mecca was thus encouraged with promises as well as assisted with finances and troops.

Hussein bin Ali
Hussein bin Ali – Leader of the Arab Revolt

The revolt began in June 1916 with 30,000 Bedouins and other tribesmen, which would be later led by Hussein’s own sons Abdullah and Faisal. Mecca was overtaken on the 13 of June and there were initial success at Jeddah, Rabegh and Ta’if. The revolt stuttered but regained momentum as the year ended, continuing to be a vital factor in the Allied victory in 1918. The revolt saw the development of guerrilla warfare with irregular tribesmen who knew the land intimately. It is remembered as a vital turning point in the politics of modern Middle East in its aftermath. In the secret Sykes Picot Agreement of 1916, Britain and France had agreed to divide Middle East among themselves which ignored Britain’s Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, which had supported Arab independence if they revolted against the Ottomans. The Balfour declaration by the British government in 1917 further confused the issue, promising support for a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. These manipulative attempts to gain foothold in the region would be the seeds of troubles that would plague the region to this day.

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