The First World War was a worldwide conflict which began with the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia on the 28th of July, 1914. The event leading to this was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the presumptive heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by a Bosnian Serb. World War I 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. It was fought for a period of more than four years and ended with the surrender of Germany on November 11, 1918. Also known as the Great War, it was one of the deadliest conflicts in history resulting in the death of an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilians. Here are the 10 most important events of World War I from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the surrender of the Central Powers.
#1 Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Date: June 28, 1914
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the presumptive heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had traveled to Bosnia to inspect the imperial armed forces in June of 1914. For almost a decade now Serbia, backed by Russia, was more and more hostile towards the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There was rise in nationalism among Serbians, both in Serbia and in Austria-Hungary. The annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austro-Hungary in 1908 further angered the Serbian nationalists, who wanted the territories to be part of Serbia. Franz Ferdinand was an advocate of increased federalism and wanted to reorganize the Empire by combining the Slavic lands into a third crown. Any such reform would have been a blow to pro–Serbian nationalism. On 28th June 1914, while visiting the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, the Archduke was assassinated along with his wife Sophie by a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip.
The assassination was followed by a diplomatic storm in Europe known as the July Crisis. A debate was held between 29th June and 1st July of 1914 in Austria-Hungary to decide on the course of action. The fear that war with Serbia would invite a war with Russia meant that Austria-Hungary needed the reassurance from their ally Germany. German Emperor Wilhelm II promised “full support” to Austria-Hungary even if “grave European complications” ensued. This led to Austria-Hungary giving Serbia the “July Ultimatum” on the 23rd of July, which consisted what most would consider as harsh terms. Even though Serbia accepted most terms, their proposal was rejected and Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia at 11 am on the 28th of July, 1914. The first blows were exchanged when the Serbians blew the railway bridge connecting the two countries and Austrian river patrolling ship SMS Bodrog, bombed the city of Belgrade. A day later Russia stared to mobilize against Austria Hungary which brought into play the alliance system that had shaped over the decades in Europe. In a few days all the Great Powers of Europe, France, Russia, Britain, Germany and Austria-Hungary, were pulled into war.
#2 Invasion of Togoland by Britain and France, WW1 begins in Africa
Date: August 6, 1914
Togoland in Africa was a German colony since 1884. It had Allied neighbors in French Dahomey in the north and east and the British Gold Coast to the west. On 5th August, a day after Britain declared war on Germany and two days after Germany declared war on France, the acting Governor of Togoland, contacted both his British and French compatriots. The Governor invoked the Congo Act (aka Berlin Conference of 1884-85) which stated that colonies in the Congo Basin were to remain neutral in the event of a conflict in Europe. His appeal was however rejected and the French and British cooperated to launch an offensive on the Germans. German forces withdrew from the capital Lomé and the coastal province to Kamina, which had the vital wireless transmitter Kamina Funkstation. It provided communications for German ships in the Atlantic and was a link between the government in Berlin and Togoland. There was long resistance in the battles of Agbeluvhoe and Chra, but the Germans finally surrendered the colony on 26 August 1914. The transmitter was destroyed so that it wouldn’t fall into Allies’ hands.
#3 Japan declares war on Germany, WW1 begins in Asia
Date: August 23, 1914
The port of Tsingtao in China was the home base of German Navy’s East Asia Squadron. In 1897, China had been forced to lease the areas around present day Shandong to the Germans for 99 years. Germany had since built the city and port of Tsingtao as a major trading destination and as a naval post with close to 4000 troops stationed there. Japan had formed close diplomatic relations with Britain with the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance, to deter Russia and further its own imperial ambitions. As the First World War broke out, Japan was quick to honor her alliance and gain a foothold in China by acquiring Tsingtao. On the 15th of August, 1914, Japan issued an ultimatum to Germany, asking it to withdraw its warships from Chinese and Japanese waters; and transfer control of Tsingtao to Japan. The warning was ignored and on 23rd August, Japan declared war on Germany. The siege took place between October 31 and November 7, 1914, ending in a German defeat. With 23,000 Japanese soldiers and 1500 British troops it was the first Anglo Japanese offensive of the war. Japan would go on to take over German colonies in the Caroline, Mariana and Marshall Islands. Later in the war, Japan would send warships to help protect Allied shipping in Europe.
#4 Allies stop the German Invasion of Paris
Date: September 6 – 10, 1914
Germany dominated the initial exchanges in the First World War. They successfully invaded Belgium and then advanced into France defeating the French Fifth Army in the Battle of Charleroi (21 – 23 August) and the Britain’s Expeditionary Force at Battle of Mons (23rd August) in Belgium. This led to a long, fighting withdrawal of the French and British forces south towards Paris. By early September of 1914, German army had advanced deep into north-eastern France, beating back Belgian, French and British forces to reach within 30 miles of Paris. French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre prepared to make a stand to defend Paris. French Sixth Army was ordered to attack the right flank of the German First Army in an action beginning on the morning of 6 September. This vital offensive would be called the First Battle of the Marne.
On the German front, the First and Second Armies under Alexander von Kluck and Karl von Bulow respectively, were tasked with sweeping to the west of Paris and encircling the Allies. An error was made as Von Kluck began to wheel his First Army west to meet the threat posed by French Sixth Army. This opened a 30-mile gap between the First and Second German Armies. The French Fifth Army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were quick to exploit this opportunity and by the 9th of September, the German First and Second Armies were threatened with encirclement and destruction. Due to this, German Commander Helmuth von Molte ordered retreat to a defensive position behind Aisne River and thus the Battle of Marne ended on September 12. This battle was a major strategic defeat of the Germans. Moreover, it marked the end of the Schlieffen plan of Germany; which was to swiftly end the battle on the western front.
#5 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.
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.
#6 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. 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.
#7 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.
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 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.
#8 The United States Enters World War I
Date: April 6, 1917
For two and a half years since the break of World War I, America had maintained its neutrality in the war; a position favored by majority of Americans. Though neutral in war, America had been a major supplier to Britain and the Allied forces, and was thus often caught in the submarine warfare around the British Isles. After the sinking of Lusitania on May 7, 1915 in which 1200 passengers including 128 Americans were killed, Germany had pledged to ensure the safety of passengers before sinking unarmed vessels in August the same year.
By February of 1917 the war was already in its third year, and it had put enormous strain on all participating nations. Determined not to blink first in what was now a war of attrition, Germany resumed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. The breaking of the pledge meant United States breaking all diplomatic ties with Germany. American liner Housatonic would be sunk by a German U-Boat in early February. Moreover, four more merchant ships will be sunk in March, leading to outrage among the Americans.
To add fuel to fire, the British communicated with Washington an intercepted telegram sent by German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann. In this telegram, he was inviting Mexico to join the war against United States as a German ally. American president Woodrow Wilson would finally go to Congress on 2nd April, calling for a declaration of war on Germany. On April 6, 1917, the United States would join WW1 on the side of the Allies.
#9 German Spring Offensive
Date: March 21 – August, 1918
Due to the Russian Revolution in 1917, Russia had withdrawn from WW1 and had signed an armistice with Germany in late 1917. This had freed 48 German divisions on the eastern front, prompting Germany to consider breaking the deadlock on the western front in France. The Germans under General Erich Ludendorff realized that their best chance to win the war lay in a decisive victory before the arrival of overwhelming American forces and supplies. The offensives, known as the German Spring Offensive, began on March 21, 1918, and were code-named Michael, Georgette, Gneisenau and Blücher-Yorck. The German attack was the biggest breakthrough in three years of warfare on the Western Front and, in the first few days, it was an overwhelming success. However there was a major problem, the Germans were unable to move supplies and reinforcements fast enough to maintain their advance. By June 1918, the offensive had lost steam, almost 230,000 men were lost and Allies had managed to defend strategic areas by concentrating their strength.
On 15th July, 1918, General Luderndorff ordered what would be Germany’s last offensive in World War I. The Second Battle of Marne, a diversionary attack to capture Reims and split the French armies, was foreseen by French general Ferdinand Foch. German troops did cross the Marne River at several points but were not able to advance. Moreover, they had to take heavy losses. The Second Battle of Marne marked the turning point on the western front and was followed by the Allied counter offensive that would end the war.
#10 The Central Powers Surrender
Date: September 29 – November 11, 1918
The so called “100 day offensive“ doesn’t refer to a particular battle but to the rapid Allied victories against German forces on the western front. The Germans were forced to retreat taking their last military resort on the Hindenburg Line, which consisted of 6 defensive lines, 5 kilometers deep and parallel to the Belgium border. The line would be breached on September 29 after intense fighting, forcing the Germans to retreat on a big scale.
On 15 September 1918, a large force under French General Louis Franchet d’Espèrey attacked through the Macedonian front and rapidly advanced to the Bulgarian capital. Bulgaria was defeated and an armistice was signed between Bulgaria and the Allied Powers in Thessaloniki on September 29, 1918.
By October of 1918, the Arab revolutionaries along with Allied forces had destroyed much of Ottoman Empire’s fighting power. The fall of Bulgaria through an Allied invasion from Greece, now directly threatened the Ottoman Capital of Constantinople (Istanbul). With the enemy advancing on all fronts and the Central powers not in any position to assist, the Ottomans sued for peace. The Ottoman Empire signed the Armistice of Mudros on October 30, 1918 with the British.
In June 1918, the Austro Hungarians launched an offensive aiming to break the Piave river defensive line and give a decisive defeat to the Italians. However, the Battle of Piave River ended in a disaster for the Austro Hungarian Imperial Army with close to 120,000 casualties. On 24th October, 1918, the Italians attacked in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. By the end of October, the Austro Hungarians began a chaotic withdrawal forcing their commanders to seek a ceasefire. The armistice was signed on November 3, 1918 in Villa Giusti, northern Italy.
After the failure of the Spring Offensive of 1918, Germany was retreating on the western front in September and October of 1918. The German empire was collapsing back home with acute food shortages leading to mass starvation in German cities. The German Revolution forced Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate on the 9th of November. A few days later, Germany agreed to surrender, signing an armistice with the allies on November 11, 1918. The Armistice of 11 November 1918 was signed at Le Francport near Compiègne. It ended fighting on land, sea and air in the First World War.