As the world marks the 100th anniversary of World War I with commemoration running all through 2014 to 2018 we take a look back at the start of WWI in 1914, how it changed forever the geographic and political landscape of countries, crumbled the old world order and the exacted a terrible toll on millions of soldiers and civilians alike.
In the second decade of the 20th century, a power-struggle in Europe led to the world's major powers pouring in their soldiers on the battlefields of World War One (WWI). Also known as the First World War or the Great War, WWI started in mid-1914 and lasted for over four years, pitting the forces of the Allies, the Triple Entente of the United Kingdom, France and the Russian Empire, against the Central Powers, also known as the Quadruple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.
Political and military leaders among the belligerent nations, who thought they were making smart moves on the chess-board of Europe, soon found their clumsy, muddled, nervous responses were nothing better than that of eager young boys engaged in make-believe war games. The difference; the death toll was very real. Men enlisted, or were called up, in their millions, being sent to fight in places that many had never heard of before.
The casualty figures of WWI are now estimated to have been over 16 million, including more than seven million civilians.
While who took the first step and who supported whom, and for what reasons are questions that are still being debated by historians, the immediate trigger for war has been attributed to 28 June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. This set off a diplomatic crisis with Austria-Hungary delivering an ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia, and Serbia rejecting it. International alliances formed over the previous decades were then invoked and within weeks the major powers were at war and the conflict soon spread around the world.
On 28 July, 1914 the Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia and subsequently invaded the country. Now two major powers, Germany and Russia, entered the scene with Germany intimating its support to Austro-Hungary and Russians intervening and backing Serbia.
On 1 August 1914, Germany taking Russian military preparations as intent of combat, declared war on Russia. Following close on the heels of this, Russia's ally France enacted a general mobilization. Germany once again took offence against French moves and subsequently declared war on France.
Since Germans thought it best to attack France first, they moved their troops across the borders of neutral Belgium. This caused angst among the British, who had assured the neutrality of Belgium through the Treaty of London, and they consequently declared war on the Germans.
After the German march on Paris was initially halted, they opened a Western Front by first invading Luxembourg, then Belgium and finally overrunning France. Both, the Germans and the Franco-British then dug in along a meandering line of fortified trenches along the Western Front that remained essentially unchanged for most of the war.
The Eastern Front, sometimes called the ‘Second Fatherland War’ by Russian sources, now had the entire frontier between the Russian Empire and Romania on one side and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria and Germany on the other. By now the clutch of war had engulfed most of the eastern and central Europe.
In November 1914, the Central Powers were joined in by the Ottoman Empire, opening fronts in the Caucasus, Mesopotamia and the Sinai and in 1915 Bulgaria joined. Italy joined the Allies in 1915, with Romania following suit in 1916 and the United States in 1917.
Among the factors that finally brought the ‘War to end War’ to an end was the Russian government collapse in 1917; the Bolshevik Revolution seizing state power brought the Russians to terms with the Central Powers.
The inexorable advance of the Allied armies during the second half of 1918 persuaded the German commanders that defeat was inevitable, and the government was forced to sue for conditions of an armistice. At 11am on 11 November 1918 an armistice with Germany was signed and a ceasefire came into effect.
When the war finally ended the stage was set for geo-political changes with revolutions, regime-changes and re-drawing of boundaries happening across Europe and many nations emerging or regaining independence.
In India, the outbreak of the war saw an unprecedented outpouring of loyalty and goodwill towards Britain. Indian political leaders from the Indian National Congress and other groups believed that their support for the British war effort would further the cause of Indian Home Rule. By the end of 1914 large contingents of Indian army began arriving across the theatre of war with the number of soldiers from India eventually outnumbering the British Army. Over 1.3 million Indian soldiers and supply staff are estimated to have served in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Casualties among Indian soldiers totaled 47,746 and 65,126 wounded during World War I. Many of the soldiers arrived in Europe under-equipped to meet the harsh winter weather and were killed or maimed as a consequence. The death and suffering engendered by the war, as well as the failure of the British government to grant self-government to India after the end of hostilities, bred disillusionment and fuelled the campaign for full Indian independence.
By the end of the war, four major imperial powers—the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires—ceased to exist. Germany and Russia lost substantial territory, while the latter two were dismantled. The maps of Europe and Southwest Asia were redrawn, with several independent nations restored or created. Besides the geographical changes, four dynasties, together with their ancillary aristocracies, all fell after the war: the Hohenzollerns, the Habsburgs, the Romanovs, and the Ottomans ceased to exist.