World War I Overview

World War I Overview Video

Europe before World War I has been described by historians as a “powder keg” because of the tensions that had built up on the continent since the 1870s. In some capacity, imperialism, militarism, and nationalism all contributed to tense relationships between countries. For greater military protection, heads of state entered alliances with other countries, and by 1910 the most powerful countries in Europe had joined either the Triple Entente or Triple Alliance. This situation proved dangerous because a single event could create a major war between all European countries because of their military obligations established in the alliances. One such event is what plunged the continent into war.

Outbreak of the War

World War I was ignited by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. The conflict pitted the Central Powers, including Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, against the Allies, which comprised France, Russia, Britain, and eventually the United States. World War I was the largest fight between nations on record when it erupted in 1914, and the global event determined the direction of the modern world. World War I was the end of dynastic monarchies within the power structure of Europe and the beginning of the first communist state. It also laid the groundwork for the beginnings of a much larger conflict two decades later: World War II.

Technological Advancements and Trench Warfare

This geopolitical entanglement dragged continents into a whirlwind of devastation and redefined warfare on an unprecedented scale. World War I was the first industrial war, with newer technologies that made their destruction more efficient. The newer technologies reshaped the nature of combat. All sides used machine guns, airplanes, toxic gas, tanks, and submarines in some capacity to gain the advantage, which inflicted widespread suffering and devastation on enemy armies. The war quickly devolved into a conflict characterized by its lack of humanity. Battles like the Somme and Verdun in France epitomized the staggering loss of life and unyielding determination of both sides, underscoring the war’s protracted and merciless nature.

The war’s defining feature was trench warfare, where Soldiers fought in a brutal, static battleground, enduring horrific conditions and relentless assaults. Soldiers dug elaborate networks of trenches that served as makeshift homes, providing shelter from relentless artillery shelling and machine gun fire. Life in the trenches was harrowing, plagued by unsanitary conditions, disease, and constant fear. The soldiers faced unimaginable horrors, enduring months of stagnant warfare characterized by occasional futile charges across no man’s land.

Psychological Impact and Shell Shock

The psychological toll was immense, as the soldiers grappled not only with the physical hardships but also with the haunting proximity to death and the sense of endless stalemate that defined this tragic chapter in history. World War I resulted in some of the first recorded instances of “shell shock,” or what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, especially due to the constant explosions heard near and far from artillery. For some soldiers, the psychological recovery took years, whereas others grappled with its impact for the rest of their lives.

Naval Warfare and the Blockades

World War I also saw a dramatic shift in maritime warfare. The clash between the British Royal Navy and the German Imperial Navy for naval supremacy took center stage, marked notably by the Battle of Jutland in 1916. This clash, which was the largest naval battle of the war, showcased the rapid evolution of naval technology and tactics, with dreadnought battleships and submarines playing critical roles. The utilization of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans, notably the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, had a profound impact on civilian maritime travel.

The United States’ Entry into World War I

Early in the war, the British used their fleet in an unprecedented move against Germany: a blockade. The British naval blockade, intended to starve Germany of resources, caused the deaths of 750,000 civilians and led Germany to pursue desperate measures to inflict damage on the British navy using submarines, or “U-boats,” to attack military and supply ships. The United States provided Britain with important war supplies that helped Britain in its fight against Germany. Germany declared the waters around the British Isles a warzone by 1915 and threatened the sinking of any ship that approached the islands.

The sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 caused worldwide outrage, especially in the United States, which was officially neutral in the conflict despite directly providing military aid to Great Britain. In response, Germany restricted its U-boat attacks momentarily, but by 1916, the United States was sending $75 million of war goods to the British Isles every week. Germany had no hope of winning the war if trade conditions between Britain and the United States continued. In response to the British blockade and US supply ships, Germans surrounded the British Isles with U-boats and reverted to unrestricted submarine warfare. Outraged, the United States threatened war, but Germany continued its attacks.

The United States eventually entered World War I in April 1917 due to unrestricted submarine warfare targeting US ships and the interception of the Zimmermann Telegram, which revealed German plans to involve Mexico in a war against the US. In response to these provocations and with public sentiment swaying toward intervention, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. This decision was influenced by a combination of economic interests, perceived threats to US security, and the desire to shape the post-war world toward Wilson’s vision of peace and democracy through his Fourteen Points. These Fourteen Points emphasized self-determination, open diplomacy, free trade, and the creation of an international organization to preserve peace. The US entry into World War I marked a significant turning point, ultimately contributing to the Allies’ victory and the subsequent shaping of the post-war global order.

Russia’s Transformation

Perhaps no other country was changed as much as Russia because of World War I. The war ultimately led to the downfall of the centuries-old Romanov dynasty and the emergence of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, which was the first successful communist revolution in Western Civilization. Russia’s involvement in the war had a major impact on their resources, specifically oil, which furthered existing social and economic tensions. A severe shortage of necessities such as food and fuel led to widespread discontent among the armed forces and civilian populations. Military failures and heavy casualties on the Eastern Front further fueled disillusionment.

In 1914, the German army successfully double-encircled the Russian army at Tannenberg, a maneuver that had only been accomplished once in military history by Hannibal against the Roman Empire in the second century BC. This defeat eroded support for the Tsarist regime among soldiers and civilians. As the war continued, Russia proved to be inept on the battlefield and suffered major defeats, even under the direction of Tsar Nicholas II, who personally led the army by 1915. Combined with the lack of resources on the home front, Russia was on the brink of a major revolution.

By February 1917, widespread strikes and protests over working conditions and lack of food and oil erupted in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), culminating in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917. The subsequent Provisional Government’s decision to continue the war led to further unrest, allowing the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, to seize power in the October Revolution later that year. This marked the end of Russia’s involvement in World War I through the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, effectively ceding large territories to the Central Powers while Russia descended into civil war and the Soviet Union was established.

The Push Toward Peace

Once Russia dropped out of the war, Germany sent all forces west to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Spurred on by visions of victory after a 4-year conflict of unprecedented death, the Germans drove the Allies back within 30 miles of Paris by April 1918. The Central Powers were on the cusp of winning the war, until US forces finally arrived at the front in the same month.

The arrival of 2 million US troops was a major psychological blow to the Central Powers because they believed the war was almost over. Instead, the Allies stopped the Central Power advance and pushed their army backward. The death total from World War I was truly unprecedented and led to a resolve by some participants in the war to create a lasting peace that would avoid any future conflicts matching the scale of World War I. The armistice signed on November 11, 1918, was the beginning of that peace process, but it also unleashed a cascade of consequences.

The Treaty of Versailles

The Allies agreed to meet in Paris after the armistice to formally negotiate peace treaties to conclude the war. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, global leaders negotiated the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. The treaty imposed significant territorial losses, disarmament, and reparations upon Germany, aiming to prevent future conflicts by weakening its military and influence. However, it also sowed the seeds for future resentment and economic instability in Germany, contributing to the conditions that led to World War II.

The conference also led to the establishment of the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations, intended to promote international cooperation and prevent future conflicts through diplomacy and collective security. Overall, however, the Paris Peace Conference and the treaties it produced were criticized for their punitive nature and failure to address underlying geopolitical tensions, setting the stage for subsequent global upheavals, specifically World War II.


In summary, World War I, which began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, transformed into a massive and devastating global conflict. This war changed history and the world forever, showing us the high price of war in human lives and suffering. It highlighted how alliances, advanced technology, and political goals can dramatically change the destinies of countries and the entire world. The war’s consequences, from reshaping national borders to setting the stage for World War II, remind us of the long-lasting impact such a conflict can have on global politics and society.

I hope this review was helpful. Thanks for watching, and happy studying!




by Mometrix Test Preparation | This Page Last Updated: December 27, 2023