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World War I For Kids
A History With 21 Activities
By R. Kent Rasmussen
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2014 R. Kent Rasmussen
All rights reserved.
THE ROAD TO WAR
Understanding the "causes" of wars is rarely easy, and the reasons for the outbreak of World War I are especially difficult to comprehend even today. The outline of events leading up to the start of the war in 1914 is clear, but it is important to learn why these events occurred. Why did each nation involved in the war get into it? What did it expect to gain? What options did each nation have when it entered the war?
The first world war was complicated because the many nations fighting in it had very different reasons for doing so. Some nations, such as France and Belgium, had little choice because they were invaded and threatened with conquest. Others, such as Russia and Italy, might easily have stayed out. Some nations, most notably Italy, could easily have fought on the side opposite to the one they joined. Even the United States, which eventually became an associated member of the Allied Powers in 1917, might conceivably have fought on the opposite side.
Europe in 1914
As the year 1914 opened, western Europe was enjoying unprecedented prosperity made possible by modern technological advances and more than four decades of general peace among the largest nations. Bloody conflicts had recently been fought in the Balkan region of southeastern Europe, and Russia had fought a war with Japan nearly a decade earlier, but those conflicts did not threaten the peace of western Europe. Great Britain, France, and Germany had fought many messy little wars against uprisings in their colonial territories, but those conflicts took place far from home and generally had little impact on European events. Because all these conflicts were far from western European power centers and were comparatively minor, few people in western Europe worried about the possibility of a bigger war that would affect them directly.
The last major war among western European nations had been the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. That conflict had lasted only about 10 months and had involved only two nations, but it indirectly contributed to the outbreak of World War I. Germany's crushing victory had taken the coal-rich Alsace-Lorraine border region from France and left the French bitterly resentful. By 1914, only the oldest French and German citizens remembered that war clearly. Nevertheless, France remained distrustful of Germany, and relations between the two neighboring countries were tense. Neither France nor Germany may have expected a new war, but both were prudent enough to prepare for that awful possibility.
Other wars among western European nations had been fought during the decades preceding the Franco-Prussian War, but most had been smaller conflicts involving only a few countries. The last truly continental conflicts engulfing western Europe had been fought from 1803 to 1815, when France's emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had tried to conquer all of Europe. He almost succeeded but was finally stopped by Great Britain. Those wars ended centuries of hostility between France and Great Britain and pitted most of Europe — including Russia — against France. At that time, neither Germany nor Italy had yet been unified, leaving Britain and Russia as the only powers strong enough to challenge France. As their battles were confined mostly to Europe, the Napoleonic Wars were not "world wars" in the same sense as the great 20th-century world wars. Nevertheless, they caused many deaths and changed the map of Europe. Britain's control of the seas and its decisive defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 ended those wars and ushered in a long era of comparative peace.
A century was a long time for Europe to go without a major war. That fact alone helped make Europeans feel confident that great wars would become relics of the past. Moreover, the 19th century proved to be an age of great industrial progress. It saw the development of powerful steam-driven machinery and engines, the spread of railroads, the harnessing of electricity, the rise of telegraphic and telephonic communications, and other great developments. By 1914, the world was thrilling to still more exciting inventions in aviation, automobile transportation, radio, and other fields. In the face of marvelous technological advances that increased industrial productivity and made human lives easier and more pleasant, it was only natural that people should think civilization was ready to put warfare behind it.
Europe's government and military leaders were prudent enough not to invest too much faith in wishful thinking and naive optimism. Europeans had seen too many wars in their history not to be wary of future wars. They kept their eyes on what neighboring nations were doing and made treaties (often secretly) with neighbors they could trust. Meanwhile, they quietly modernized their military forces and made contingency plans in case another major war should erupt.
No obvious signs of serious trouble appeared to be brewing on the Continent in 1914, aside from unsettled conflicts in the seemingly remote Balkan region, which encompassed Austrian-controlled Bosnia Herzegovina, independent Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and parts of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The peoples of Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and other western European countries had every reason to think their peace and prosperity would continue forever. With so much of western Europe prospering, what reason would any of its nations have for going to war?
Trigger for War
Unfortunately, wars sometimes do start unexpectedly and often without sensible reasons. That is essentially how World War I began. However, while all the reasons for the war may not be clear, the event that triggered it is. On June 28, 1914, an obscure young Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Bosnia. The assassination set in motion a sequence of events that would lead to war. It was a strange sequence, much like what happens when dominoes are lined up in rows on their edges: after one domino is tipped over, it knocks over a second domino, which in turn knocks over a third, and so on, until all the dominoes have fallen. World War I started because Ferdinand's assassination gave Austria-Hungary an excuse to wage war on tiny Serbia, tipping over the first of many dominoes.
From Provocation to War
Archduke Ferdinand's assassination did not cause a great stir when the news reached western Europe. Western Europeans had grown used to hearing about conflicts in the Balkan region and did not immediately see how the assassination could affect them. Ferdinand had been the presumptive heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, which traced its origins back to western Europe's great Holy Roman Empire. However, Austria-Hungary had become a tired, unwieldy empire that had lost the respect of its more powerful neighbors. Moreover, Ferdinand himself had not been well known outside his own country. Thus, while his assassination may have been regrettable, it did not seem like a calamitous event.
In central Europe, especially in Austria-Hungary, however, reactions were different. Franz Ferdinand had not been greatly liked by his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, or his government, but that did not matter. The assassination was seen as an act of rebellion threatening the integrity of the empire, which was already struggling to stay together. Austria-Hungary differed from Germany, France, Italy, and Great Britain, whose peoples shared common cultures. Austria-Hungary encompassed a patchwork of diverse cultures and nationalities with only its imperial government to bind them together. Forces starting to pull the empire apart were already at work. Those forces were strongest in its Balkan provinces, including Bosnia Herzegovina, where Ferdinand was killed.
Looking for someone to blame, Austria-Hungary accused independent Serbia of being behind Serbian disorders in Bosnia, including the assassination. It got ready to issue Serbia an ultimatum it expected would be rejected and meanwhile prepared to invade that country. Its goal was to end ethnic unrest in its southern provinces so it could hold its empire together. Austria-Hungary figured that defeating tiny Serbia would be easy but had to take into account possible opposition from its huge eastern neighbor, Russia. Like the Serbians, Russians spoke a Slavic language, followed Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and shared other cultural similarities. Fearing that Russia would not idly watch a fellow Slavic nation be conquered, Austria-Hungary turned to its western neighbor, Germany, for support. This is where the origins of World War I become especially difficult to understand.
Germany had no special interests in the Balkans. It was not eager to go to war against Russia but probably expected it would eventually have to fight it. Germany had recently expanded and modernized its military forces. Its leaders seemed to think it would be wise to confront Russia right away, before Russia finished modernizing and training its own military. For that reason, its emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, promised military support to Austria-Hungary if it were attacked by Russia. Wilhelm was a first cousin of the Russian ruler, Tsar Nicholas II, and both were first cousins of Britain's King George V. Wilhelm figured his close personal relationship to Nicholas would delay any Russian military response to Germany's provocative action. At the same time, German leaders hoped Great Britain and France would not rush to get involved.
On July 23, 1914, Austria-Hungary presented Serbia with an ultimatum containing 10 specific demands. They included letting Austria-Hungary take part in Serbia's investigation of the assassination and the suppression of all anti-Austrian activities within Serbia. Austria-Hungary wanted an excuse to invade Serbia, so it worded its demands to ensure Serbia would reject them to avoid being humiliated. To the Austrians' surprise, however, Serbia quickly accepted all but a few minor points in the ultimatum. Nevertheless, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28 — exactly one month after Ferdinand's assassination. The next day, Austrian troops began shelling Belgrade, the Serbian capital near the country's northern border with Austria-Hungary. Only two countries were involved, but World War I had begun.
Other Nations Join In
After Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia, other nations began acting quickly. Russia was poorly governed and its military lacked modern equipment and training, but the country was so big and its army so large, it would be a formidable enemy merely because of its great size. When Russia began mobilizing its army on July 30, Germany responded by mobilizing its own military forces. The two countries' emperor cousins continued to communicate with each other constantly to cool things down, but on August 1, Germany declared war on Russia, France, and Belgium. Expecting that France would likely side with Russia, Germany then had to consider what to do about its equally dangerous western neighbor, which was still angry about the territory it had lost to Germany in 1870.
The possibility of Germany's going to war with France again was not a new idea in 1914. Eight years earlier, General Count Alfred von Schlieffen had devised a detailed plan for Germany to use should it find itself fighting both France and Russia. The so-called Schlieffen Plan called for Germany to invade and conquer France as quickly as possible, so it could then send its victorious troops east on trains to take on Russia before that country was completely ready to fight. Germany had the modern rail lines and railroad stock to move hundreds of thousands of troops east fast enough to make Schlieffen's daring plan work. However, to accomplish that feat, Germany could not afford to dicker with France. It had to act immediately, so it declared war on France on August 3.
Because France had heavily fortified the border it shared with Germany, the Schlieffen Plan called for German troops to enter France through its lightly defended northern borders with neutral Belgium and Luxembourg and then turn toward Paris and central France. Belgium was a comparatively weak country in which Germany had no particular interest, but because a speedy conquest of France was essential, Germany launched its invasion in Belgium.
Germany's attack on Belgium quickly brought Great Britain into the war. Britain had a treaty with Belgium guaranteeing it would help defend its neutrality against invasion. Germany had also guaranteed Belgian neutrality, but that guarantee now meant nothing. While Britain was obligated to defend Belgium, it also had its own issues with Germany. In recent years, Germany had been building up its modern navy with the obvious intent of challenging British naval dominance in the world. Germany was envious of Britain's vast colonial empire throughout Africa, Asia, and parts of the Americas. The British naturally felt threatened by Germany, so they had their own motives for reducing German military power.
On August 4, Britain declared war against Germany. This was bad news for Germany. Despite Germany's great naval buildup, it was not quite ready to take on Russia, France, and Britain all at once. Its first priority was now clearer than ever. It had to defeat France with its army before British troops could play a role, and then move against Russia. As Germany began invading Belgium, it expected to easily brush aside that country's small military forces and advance quickly into France. The Belgians, however, had other ideas, and Germany's Schlieffen Plan was soon in trouble.CHAPTER 2
STALEMATE ON THE WESTERN FRONT
Throughout the history of great European wars, huge armies had traditionally swept into enemy territories hoping to overwhelm resistance through the speed and weight of their forces. This is exactly what the Schlieffen Plan called for the German army to do against Belgium and France. The plan had been worked out in such detail it even contained a precise schedule of when each invasion step should occur. A key element of the plan was for the right flank of the German army to sweep so far to the west that its last soldier could touch the sea. This naturally meant the Germans would have to advance far into Belgium.
Conquest of Belgium
On August 2, 1914, Germany sent its first troops into Luxembourg, which was so small and weak it scarcely counted in the war. Meanwhile, the government gave Belgium 12 hours to accept its demand for free passage through that country. The next day, as Germany declared war on France, Belgium rejected its demands and appealed to Great Britain for help. Britain immediately began to mobilize. On August 4, as German troops entered Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany.
Although the Belgians refused to capitulate, they knew as well as the Germans did that they had no chance of repelling the invasion. Their army put up a strong resistance, and even Belgian civilians shot at the advancing Germans. Civilian involvement in fighting went against accepted wartime practices. The Germans responded by executing many Belgian civilians — including women and children — and burning whole towns to the ground. These actions naturally aroused outside opinion against Germany and laid a basis for Allied propaganda denouncing Germans as barbaric "Huns." Germany's later unnecessary destruction of a great medieval library in the city of Liège stood in sharp contrast to Germany's treasured self-image as a center of higher culture.
The Germans greatly underestimated the Belgian resolve. Strengthened by the courageous example of their king, Albert I, Belgian troops were ready to die rather than surrender. In addition to meeting stronger resistance from Belgian troops than expected, the German advance was slowed by having to knock out a string of strong fortresses protecting the east Belgian city of Liège. When huge artillery weapons failed to reduce Liège's main citadel, the German commander, Major General Erich von Ludendorff, called for a zeppelin airship to drop bombs on Liège. This first use of an aircraft as a bombing weapon did little damage. It did, however, herald a future trend in which aerial bombing would bring the horror of war ever closer to civilian populations. Meanwhile, Ludendorff finally broke open the Belgian fortresses with a giant howitzer cannon, nicknamed "Big Bertha," whose shells could penetrate thick concrete walls.
As German troops completed their conquest of Belgium over the next two weeks, other units began advancing into northern France. Meanwhile, Russia was advancing on Germany from the east much more quickly than had been anticipated. Developments on the eastern front intensified German urgency in conquering France on the western front, and Germany was forced to divert troops from the west to the east much sooner than it had intended. German troops were winning battles against the Russians in the east, but every delay in the west made the eastern situation more perilous. When the war began, Germany expected it would not last more than a few months. By the end of August 1914, that optimistic assessment was looking doubtful.
Excerpted from World War I For Kids by R. Kent Rasmussen. Copyright © 2014 R. Kent Rasmussen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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