The Great War

1914-1918

Submarines, Dreadnoughts and Battle Cruisers - The Navies of World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR - Special

Navies affecting the War

In 1898 Germany began building a large modern navy. The buildup threatened the British, who rushed to build warships. By the early 1900s, Britain and Germany were engaged in an arms race.
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Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, visited the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. As he and his wife rode through the city, Bosnian revolutionary Gavrilo Princip rushed their car and shot them dead. The assassination occurred with the knowledge of Serbian officials who hoped to start a war that would damage Austria-Hungary.
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Austria Declares War

On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia immediately mobilized its army, including troops stationed on the German border. Within days Germany declared war on Russia and France. World War I had begun.


Germany immediately launched a massive invasion of France, hoping to knock the French out of the war, so it could turn its attention east to Russia. But the German plan required forces to advance through Belgium. The British government, which had signed an earlier treaty with Belgium guaranteeing the country’s neutrality, declared war on Germany when German troops crossed the Belgian frontier.

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Sinking of the Lusitania

On May 7, 1915, a U-boat sank the British passenger ship Lusitania, killing over 1,000 passengers—including 128 Americans. The attack gave credibility to British propaganda and changed American attitudes about the war. Which earlier, Wilson had stated that American was neutral over the war.
WW1: The Zimmermann Telegram

The Zimmerman Telegram

In January 1917, German official Arthur Zimmermann sent a telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico promising Mexico the return of its “lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona” if it allied with Germany. British intelligence intercepted the Zimmermann telegram, and it ran in American newspapers. Furious, many Americans concluded that war with Germany was necessary.
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The United States Declares War

On February 1, 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and between February 3 and March 21, U-boats sank six American ships. Roused to action, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany on April 2, 1917. Within days the Senate and the House had voted for the resolution, and Wilson signed it.
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Helping the War Effort

As part of the war effort, Congress created new agencies staffed by business executives, managers, and government officials to coordinate mobilization and ensure the efficient use of national resources. These agencies emphasized cooperation between big business and government.


The War Industries Board (WIB) coordinated the production of war materials. Early problems convinced President Wilson to expand the Board’s powers. The WIB told manufacturers what they could produce, allocated raw materials, ordered new factory construction, and sometimes set prices.


The Food Administration, run by Herbert Hoover, was responsible for increasing food production while reducing civilian consumption. The agency encouraged families to conserve food and grow their own vegetables in victory gardens. “Eat more corn, oats and rye products—fish and poultry—fruits, vegetables and potatoes, baked, boiled and broiled foods. . . . Eat less wheat, meat, sugar and fats to save for the army and our allies,” urged Food Administration posters.


The Fuel Administration managed use of coal and oil. To conserve energy, it introduced the first usage of daylight saving time, shortened workweeks for civilian goods factories, and encouraged Heatless Mondays.

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Mobilizing the Workforce

The war effort also required the cooperation of workers. To prevent strikes from disrupting the war effort, the government established the National War Labor Board (NWLB) in April 1918. The NWLB often pressured industry to improve wages, adopt an eight-hour workday, and allow unions the right to organize and bargain collectively. In exchange, labor leaders agreed not to disrupt war production with strikes or other disturbances. As a result, membership in unions increased by over one million between 1917 and 1919.


With so many men in the military, employers were willing to hire women for jobs traditionally held by men. Some 1 million women joined the workforce for the first time, and another 8 million switched to better industrial jobs. Women worked in factories, shipyards, and railroad yards and served as police officers, mail carriers, and train engineers. When the war ended, however, most women returned to their previous jobs or stopped working. Yet the changes demonstrated that women were capable of holding jobs that many had believed only men could do.

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Shaping Public Opinion

Progressives did not think that organizing the economy was enough to ensure the success of the war effort. They also believed the government needed to shape public opinion. Soon after Congress declared war, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to “sell” the war to the American people. Headed by journalist George Creel, the CPI recruited advertising executives, artists, authors, songwriters, entertainers, public speakers, and motion picture companies to help sway public opinion in favor of the war.


The CPI distributed pamphlets and arranged for thousands of “four-minute speeches” to be delivered at movie theaters and other public places. Some 75,000 speakers, known as Four-Minute Men, urged audiences to support the war in various ways, from buying war bonds to reporting draft dodgers to the authorities. Nongovernmental groups also helped raise awareness and funds for the war. For example, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee raised $63 million in relief funds. The Jewish Welfare Board set up centers at home and abroad for Jewish servicemen.

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The Great Migration

Desperate for workers, Henry Ford sent agents to the South to recruit African Americans. Other companies quickly followed suit. Promises of high wages and plentiful work convinced between 300,000 and 500,000 African Americans to move north. This massive population movement became known as the Great Migration. The racial makeup of such cities as Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and Detroit changed greatly.


The war also encouraged other groups to migrate. Between 1917 and 1920, more than 100,000 Mexicans migrated into the Southwest, providing labor for farmers and ranchers. Mexican Americans also found new opportunities in factory jobs in Chicago, St. Louis, Omaha, and other American cities.

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Espionage and Sedition Acts

The Espionage Act of 1917 made it illegal to aid the enemy, give false reports, or interfere with the war effort. The Sedition Act of 1918 made it illegal to speak against the war publicly. In practice, it allowed officials to prosecute anyone who criticized the government. These two laws led to more than 2,000 convictions.
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The Selective Service Act

Instead of having the military run the draft from Washington, D.C., the Selective Service Act of 1917 required all men between 21 and 30 to register for the draft. A lottery randomly determined the order in which they were called before a local draft board in charge of selecting or exempting people from military service. Eventually, about 2.8 million Americans were drafted.
They Came To Fight

African Americans in the War

Of the nearly 400,000 African Americans who were drafted, about 42,000 served overseas as combat troops. African American soldiers encountered discrimination and prejudice in the army, where they served in racially segregated units, almost always under the supervision of white officers. Despite these challenges, many African American soldiers fought with distinction. For example, the African American 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions fought in bitter battles along the Western Front.
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Trench Warfare

To protect themselves from artillery, troops began digging trenches. On the Western Front—where German troops fought French, British, and Belgian forces—the troops dug a network of trenches that stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Both sides used barbed wire and a new weapon, the machine gun, to guard against the enemy. Attacks usually began with a massive artillery barrage. Soldiers then raced across the rough landscape toward enemy trenches. Troops used any weapon available to kill the enemy. The new style of fighting, which both sides eventually utilized, resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of men and a stalemate on the Western Front. Offensive and defensive moves by the Allies and the Germans failed to be particularly successful.
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New Technology in the War

Breaking through enemy lines required new technologies. The Germans first used poison gas in 1915, and the Allies soon followed. Gas caused vomiting, blindness, and suffocation. Both sides developed gas masks to counter fumes. In 1916 the British introduced the armored tank, which could crush barbed wire and cross trenches. But there were still too few of the slow, unreliable machines to revolutionize warfare.


World War I also marked the first use of aircraft in war. Early in the war, the Germans used giant rigid balloons called zeppelins to drop bombs on British warships in the North Sea. At first, airplanes were used to spy on enemy troops and ships. Then the Allies equipped them with machine guns and rockets to attack the German zeppelin fleet. Other aircraft carried small bombs to drop on enemy lines. As technology advanced, airplanes shot down other airplanes in battles known as dogfights.

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Winning the War at Sea

American admiral William S. Sims proposed that merchant ships and troop transports travel in groups called convoys. Small, maneuverable warships called destroyers protected convoys across the Atlantic. If a ship was sunk, other ships in the convoy could rescue survivors. Convoys greatly reduced shipping losses and ensured that American troops arrived safely in time to help the Allies on the Western Front.
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Russia Leaves the War

In March 1917, riots broke out in Russia. Czar Nicholas II, the leader of the Russian Empire, abdicated his throne, and the Russian Revolution began. A temporary government took command whose leaders wanted Russia to stay in the war. However, the government was unable to deal adequately with the problems afflicting the nation, so Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party seized power and established a Communist government in November 1917.

Germany’s military fortunes improved with the Bolshevik takeover. Lenin pulled Russia out of the war to concentrate on establishing a Communist state.

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America Enters the War

American soldiers arrived in Paris on July 4, 1917 to help with the war effort against Germany. Germany’s Last Offensive was On March 21, 1918, the Germans launched a massive gas attack and artillery bombardment along the Western Front. Strengthened by reinforcements from the Russian front, the Germans pushed deep into Allied lines. By early June, they were less than 40 miles (64 km) from Paris. In late May, as the offensive continued, the Americans launched their first major attack, quickly capturing the village of Cantigny. On June 1, American and French troops blocked the German drive on Paris at the town of Château-Thierry. On July 15, the Germans launched one last massive attack in an attempt to take Paris, but American and French troops held their ground.
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The War Ends

Meanwhile, a revolution had engulfed Austria-Hungary. In October 1918, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia declared independence. By early November, the governments of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire had surrendered to the Allies.


In late October, sailors in Kiel, the main base of the German fleet, mutinied. Within days, groups of workers and soldiers seized power in other German towns. The German emperor stepped down, and on November 9, Germany became a republic. Two days later, the government signed an armistice—an agreement to stop fighting. On November 11, 1918, the fighting stopped.

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Wilson's Fourteen Points

President Wilson arrived in Paris in 1919 with a peace plan known as the Fourteen Points. It was based on “the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities.” In the first five points, Wilson proposed to eliminate the causes of the war through free trade, freedom of the seas, disarmament, an impartial adjustment of colonial claims, and open diplomacy.


The next eight points addressed the right of national self-determination,the idea that the borders of countries should be based on ethnicity and national identity. Supporters of this idea believed that when borders are not based on national identity, nations are more likely to go to war to resolve border disputes. This principle also meant that no nation should keep territory taken from another nation. This required the Central Powers to evacuate all invaded countries and Germany to restore the French territory of Alsace-Lorraine, taken in 1871.


The fourteenth point called for the creation of a League of Nations. The League’s members would help preserve peace by pledging to respect and protect each other’s territory and political independence. Wilson was willing to give up his other goals in exchange for support for the League.

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Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles, reluctantly signed by Germany on June 28, 1919, included many terms designed to punish and weaken Germany. Germany’s armed forces were greatly reduced and its troops were not allowed west of the Rhine River. The treaty also specifically blamed “the aggression of Germany” for the war. This allowed the Allies to demand that Germany pay reparations—monetary compensation for all of the war damages it had caused. A commission decided that Germany owed the Allies about $33 billion. This sum far exceeded what Germany could pay all at once and was intended to keep its economy weak for a long time.


Wilson had somewhat better success in promoting national self-determination. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, the German Empire, and the Ottoman Empire were dismantled, and new nations created. In general, the majority of people in each new country were from one ethnic group. But both Poland and Czechoslovakia were given territory where the majority of the people were German, and Germany was split in two in order to give Poland access to the Baltic Sea. This arrangement helped set the stage for a new series of crises in the 1930s.


The Treaty of Versailles ignored freedom of the seas, free trade, and Wilson’s goal of a fair settlement of colonial claims. No colonial people in Asia or Africa received independence. France and Britain took over colonial areas in Africa and the Middle East, and Japan assumed responsibility for colonies in East Asia. The treaty did, however, call for the creation of a League of Nations. League members promised to reduce armaments, to submit all disputes that endangered the peace to arbitration, and to aid any member who was threatened with aggression.