World War I (also called The First World War, or The Great War) lasted from 1914-1919. It directly resulted in at least 9 million deaths, and was mostly fought in Europe.

Build-Up: Imperialism

For many years the major European powers – The UK, France, Spain, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia – had been expanding. This created a race for new territory and influence.

Countries, most noticeably the UK and Germany, began to spend more money on the military. It is estimated that military spending increased by 50% in Europe between 1908 and 1913.

To attempt to control this race to power many of the countries created alliances with each other.


A series of alliances was made:

  • The Holy Alliance: Prussia, Russia, Austria
  • League of the Three Empires: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia (Russia later left, leaving Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Dual Alliance)
  • The Triple Alliance: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy
  • Franco-Russian Alliance: France, Russia
  • Entente Cordial: France, the UK
  • Anglo-Russian Convention: the UK, Russia (*although not official, The UK, France and Russia were basically allied in ‘The Triple Entente’)

Problems in Eastern Europe

As the Ottoman Empire died and countries in Eastern Europe began to reach for power, the area became very unstable. There were two Balkan Wars (involving Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece), while Austria-Hungary and Russia became politically involved.

The Spark, and Ultimatums

On June 14th 1914  the heir to the Austria-Hungary throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Serbia. Austria-Hungary sent an ultimatum to Serbia.

Within weeks countries were forced to fulfill their alliances.

World War I is often seen as a ‘house of cards’. Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who killed the archduke, is known by some as the man who started a world war.

War Begins

Austria-Hungary attempted to invade Serbia. The Serbs kept them out.

Meanwhile Germany – who had an alliance with Austria-Hungary – worried about an attack on them from France to the west and Russia to the east. They attacked France first. Russia did attack from the east.

A Global War

Imperialism meant that the main European countries had armies and influence all over the world. These areas began to fight as well.

Examples of this:

  • New Zealand, part of the British Empire, took German Samoa.
  • Japan aided the Allies in taking German areas in China.
  • British, French and German armies fought in Africa, where each country had been expanding.
  • India, part of the British Empire, aided the Allies.

New Weapons and a Large Death Toll

Technology had greatly advanced the effectiveness of weapons. The machine gun made defending territory far easier. At the beginning of the war military tactics did not know how to beat the machine gun, leading to trench warfare, slow progress, and a high death toll.,

Later in the war gas and tanks were introduced.Submarines were used by the navies.

The rise of technology meant killing people was easier than ever before. World War I became the bloodiest war in history:

  • The Brusilov Offensive resulted in 1.6 million deaths.
  • The Battle of the Somme lead to the death of over 1 million men.
  • Over a million died in three battles at Ypres.
  • Nearly a million died at Verdun.
  • Half a million died at Gallipoli.

America Joins and Russia Withdraws

For two and a half years America had been trying to be neutral. It had been selling weapons and earning money. But British and German boats were interfering, taking shipments and sinking boats. America joined the war in April 1917, joining the Allies.

Problems at home – disillusionment with the war and Royal Family – meant Russia underwent a revolution. The new Bolshevik leader, Lenin, withdrew from the war in early 1918.

The End of the War

The Germans were beginning to lose the war. A Spring Offensive had resulted in many casualties but no progress. The Allies fought back with their own offensive.

More and more Germans were taken hostage. Knowing the war could not be won, Austria-Hungary asked for a truce on November 3rd 1918. On November 11th, at 11am (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month) Germany signed an armistice.

The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28 1919, officially ending the war.