The University of Montana
The University of Montana
It is easy to pinpoint the event that finally touched off World War I, but it's much more difficult to explain the underlying conditions and events that were the real causes.
As Europe entered the 20th Century, its countries were jockeying for power and trying to increase their territories. Britain and Germany were locked in an arms race. Industrialization had brought a growing feeling of nationalism and imperialism. And, small wars on the continent had led to shifting borders as countries lost and won territories, particularly in the Balkans.
On June 28, 1914, a Bosnian Serb assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his visit to Sarajevo. Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. At the time, Europe was governed by two shifting and uneasy alliances of powerful nations. One alliance, including Great Britain, Russia and France, would become the Allies. While the other, including Germany, AustriaHungary and the Ottoman Empire would be known as the Central Powers.
After Franz Ferdinand was killed, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. That triggered a chain reaction of war declarations among the two alliances that plunged Europe into a massive conflict. Over four years, it would eventually draw in nearly 100 countries including the United States and Japan.
As the large-scale conflict broke out in Europe, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was determined to stay out of it. But, in February 1915, Germany set up a submarine blockade around Britain, declaring the waters a war zone. Wilson maintained his neutral policy as the submarines attacked one or two U.S. ships. But, when 128 Americans died after a German U-boat sank the Lusitania without warning, off the coast of Ireland, public opinion began to shift. Debate increased between the interventionists, who wanted the U.S. to enter the war, and the isolationists, who did not.
Wilson won re-election in 1916, using the slogan: "He kept us out of war." But historians say he was struggling with a moral dilemma. He believed that war was evil, but he also believed that the Allies were in the right, and that defeat would be a disaster for the United States. Ultimately, he took the stance that entering the war was the only way to "make the world safe for democracy."
And so, on April 2, 1917, Wilson went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany. Four days later, Congress voted overwhelmingly to declare war.
Initially a flood of young men volunteered for service, but it wasn't enough. On May 18, 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which created a draft. It required all men from 21 to 30 years of age (later extended 18 to 45), to register. Those who had dependent families, indispensable duties at home, or physical disabilities were exempt. Eleven million Americans registered for the draft, and about four million were called up to active service. The first American troops arrived in England on June, 7, 1917. Artist James Flagg used "Uncle Sam" on a recruiting poster during World War I, but the character had been a symbol for the Untited States long before that. In 1869, cartoonist Thomas Nast gave "Uncle Sam" his beard.
With America entering the war, the Central Powers saw they could not win. Along the western front, thousands of German soldiers surrendered. Then, in October a revolt in the German navy finally collapsed the country's war effort. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German emperor, abdicated and fled to the Netherlands.
And, at 11 a.m. on November 11th 1918, Germany signed an armistice with the Allies.
World War I by HP Willmott
The First World War by John Keegan
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