World War I, also called First World War or Great War, an international conflict that in 1914–18 embroiled most of the nations of Europe along with Russia, the United States, the Middle East, and other regions. The war pitted the Central Powers—mainly Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey—against the Allies—mainly France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan, and, from 1917, the United States. It ended with the defeat of the Central Powers. The war was virtually unprecedented in the slaughter, carnage, and destruction it caused.
World War I was one of the great watersheds of 20th-century geopolitical history. It led to the fall of four great imperial dynasties (in Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey), resulted in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and, in its destabilization of European society, laid the groundwork for World War II.
The outbreak of war
With Serbia already much aggrandized by the two Balkan Wars (1912–13, 1913), Serbian nationalists turned their attention back to the idea of “liberating” the South Slavs of Austria-Hungary. Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, head of Serbia’s military intelligence, was also, under the alias “Apis,” head of the secret society Union or Death, pledged to the pursuit of this pan-Serbian ambition. Believing that the Serbs’ cause would be served by the death of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, and learning that the Archduke was about to visit Bosnia on a tour of military inspection, Apis plotted his assassination. Nikola Pašić, the Serbian prime minister and an enemy of Apis, heard of the plot and warned the Austrian government of it, but his message was too cautiously worded to be understood.
At 11:15 am on June 28, 1914, in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand and his morganatic wife, Sophie, duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip. The chief of the Austro-Hungarian general staff, Franz, Graf (count) Conrad von Hötzendorf, and the foreign minister, Leopold, Graf von Berchtold, saw the crime as the occasion for measures to humiliate Serbia and so to enhance Austria-Hungary’s prestige in the Balkans. Conrad had already (October 1913) been assured by William II of Germany’s support if Austria-Hungary should start a preventive war against Serbia. This assurance was confirmed in the week following the assassination, before William, on July 6, set off upon his annual cruise to the North Cape, off Norway.
The Austrians decided to present an unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia and then to declare war, relying on Germany to deter Russia from intervention. Though the terms of the ultimatum were finally approved on July 19, its delivery was postponed to the evening of July 23, since by that time the French president, Raymond Poincaré, and his premier, René Viviani, who had set off on a state visit to Russia on July 15, would be on their way home and therefore unable to concert an immediate reaction with their Russian allies. When the delivery was announced, on July 24, Russia declared that Austria-Hungary must not be allowed to crush Serbia.
Serbia replied to the ultimatum on July 25, accepting most of its demands but protesting against two of them—namely, that Serbian officials (unnamed) should be dismissed at Austria-Hungary’s behest and that Austro-Hungarian officials should take part, on Serbian soil, in proceedings against organizations hostile to Austria-Hungary. Though Serbia offered to submit the issue to international arbitration, Austria-Hungary promptly severed diplomatic relations and ordered partial mobilization.
Home from his cruise on July 27, William learned on July 28 how Serbia had replied to the ultimatum. At once he instructed the German Foreign Office to tell Austria-Hungary that there was no longer any justification for war and that it should content itself with a temporary occupation of Belgrade. But, meanwhile, the German Foreign Office had been giving such encouragement to Berchtold that already on July 27 he had persuaded Franz Joseph to authorize war against Serbia. War was in fact declared on July 28, and Austro-Hungarian artillery began to bombard Belgrade the next day. Russia then ordered partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary, and on July 30, when Austria-Hungary was riposting conventionally with an order of mobilization on its Russian frontier, Russia ordered general mobilization. Germany, which since July 28 had still been hoping, in disregard of earlier warning hints from Great Britain, that Austria-Hungary’s war against Serbia could be “localized” to the Balkans, was now disillusioned insofar as eastern Europe was concerned. On July 31 Germany sent a 24-hour ultimatum requiring Russia to halt its mobilization and an 18-hour ultimatum requiring France to promise neutrality in the event of war between Russia and Germany.
Both Russia and France predictably ignored these demands. On August 1 Germany ordered general mobilization and declared war against Russia, and France likewise ordered general mobilization. The next day Germany sent troops into Luxembourg and demanded from Belgium free passage for German troops across its neutral territory. On August 3 Germany declared war against France.
In the night of August 3–4 German forces invaded Belgium. Thereupon, Great Britain, which had no concern with Serbia and no express obligation to fight either for Russia or for France but was expressly committed to defend Belgium, on August 4 declared war against Germany.
Austria-Hungary declared war against Russia on August 5; Serbia against Germany on August 6; Montenegro against Austria-Hungary on August 7 and against Germany on August 12; France and Great Britain against Austria-Hungary on August 10 and on August 12, respectively; Japan against Germany on August 23; Austria-Hungary against Japan on August 25 and against Belgium on August 28.
Romania had renewed its secret anti-Russian alliance of 1883 with the Central Powers on February 26, 1914, but now chose to remain neutral. Italy had confirmed the Triple Alliance on December 7, 1912, but could now propound formal arguments for disregarding it: first, Italy was not obliged to support its allies in a war of aggression; second, the original treaty of 1882 had stated expressly that the alliance was not against England.
On September 5, 1914, Russia, France, and Great Britain concluded the Treaty of London, each promising not to make a separate peace with the Central Powers. Thenceforth, they could be called the Allied, or Entente, powers, or simply the Allies.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 was generally greeted with confidence and jubilation by the peoples of Europe, among whom it inspired a wave of patriotic feeling and celebration. Few people imagined how long or how disastrous a war between the great nations of Europe could be, and most believed that their country’s side would be victorious within a matter of months. The war was welcomed either patriotically, as a defensive one imposed by national necessity, or idealistically, as one for upholding right against might, the sanctity of treaties, and international morality.
This collection of World War I essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors. These questions can also be used for short answer responses, research tasks, homework and revision activities. If you would like to suggest a question for this page, please contact Alpha History.
The world before 1914
2. How did the leadership of Otto von Bismarck shape the future of Germany to 1914?
3. What were the outcomes of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71? How did these outcomes shape late 19th and early 20th century European relations?
4. Explain how the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ethnic, cultural and language diversity created problems for the ruling Hapsburg dynasty.
5. Why was the Ottoman Empire considered the ‘sick man of Europe’? How did its problems affect or concern major European powers?
6. Compare and contrast the British, French and German Empires at the beginning of the 20th century.
7. Explain how militarism shaped and affected politics, economics and society in Germany to 1914. How democratic and representative was German government during this period?
8. How did imperialism and imperial rivalry contribute to European tensions between 1871 and 1914?
9. Discuss three alliances of the 19th and early 20th centuries, describing how each alliance affected European relations.
10. Bismarck famously said that a European war would start from “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans”. What “foolish things” happened in this region in the decade before World War I – and how did they affect European relations?
The road to war
1. Identify and discuss the three most significant factors leading to the outbreak of World War I.
2. Investigate and discuss the ‘war readiness’ and military strengths and weaknesses of Europe’s major powers in 1914.
3. What was Weltpolitik and how did it contribute to European tensions to 1914?
4. “Kaiser Wilhelm II was more responsible for the outbreak of World War I than any other individual leader.” To what extent is this statement true?
5. In the early 1900s many believed England and Germany had much in common and should have been allies, not antagonists. What were the sources or reasons for Anglo-German tension prior to 1914?
6. Investigate the relationship between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in the years prior to 1914. Why was Serbian nationalism worrying for Austro-Hungarian leaders?
7. Austria considered Serbia wholly responsible for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. To what extent was the Serbian government truly responsible?
8. It is often said that the alliance system made a major war inevitable. Did alliances alone compel European nations to war after June 1914 – or were other factors involved?
9. Many historians suggest that the ‘failure of diplomacy’ led to war in 1914. What attempts did European diplomats make to negotiate and avoid war, and why did these attempts fail?
10. What do the ‘Nicky and Willy telegrams’ (between the Russian tsar and German kaiser) reveal about the character and leadership of both men?
11. Were the Kaiser and his advisors anticipating a European war that involved Britain? Explain how Britain became entangled in the road to war in mid 1914.
12. Focusing on three different countries, describe how the press and the public responded to declarations of war in August 1914.
13. Investigate anti-war sentiment in 1914. Which groups and individuals wrote, spoke or campaigned against war? What arguments did they put forward?
14. Explain why the small nation of Belgium became so crucial, both in July and August 1914.
15. Why did the Ottoman Empire enter World War I? What were its objectives and how prepared was it for a major war?
Battles and battle fronts
2. What were the outcomes of the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in 1914? What did these battles reveal about the Russian military?
3. What happened at the first Battle of the Marne in 1914? What were the outcomes of this battle and what influence did it have on the rest of the war?
4. Compare the Western Front and Eastern Front as theatres of war. What were the similarities and differences in warfare on these two fronts?
5. How did naval power and the war on the seas shape the course of World War I? Refer to at least three major battles or incidents in your answer.
6. Why did the Allies consider the Dardanelles of strategic importance? Explain why the Dardanelles campaign of 1915 was a failure for the Allies.
7. What were the main objectives of the war in the Middle East? Discuss at least three significant locations or battles in your answer.
8. Why did Italy enter World War I in 1915? Where did most Italian troops fight and what impact did the war have on Italy?
9. Explain why the Battle of the Somme was such a significant operation, particularly for British forces.
10. Germany’s strategy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ was largely responsible for bringing the United States into the war. Was it a reasonable or justifiable policy? Why was it adopted?
Methods of warfare
2. It is often said that British soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”. To what extent was this really true?
3. Explain why trench warfare became the dominant form of warfare on the Western Front.
4. What was life like for the average trench soldier? What were the duties, routines and rotations for those who served in the trenches?
5. Evaluate the use and impact of chemical weapons in World War I. Were they an important weapon of war – or were they used for terror and shock value?
6. Prior to 1914 cavalry (horse-mounted soldiers) were an important feature of most armies. Did cavalry regiments play any significant role in World War I?
7. Using evidence and referring to specific battles or events, explain which three weapons had the greatest impact on the battlefields of the Western Front.
8. How were aircraft like planes and airships used in World War I? Did these machines have any impact on the war and its outcomes – or were they a sideshow to the real fighting on the ground?
9. Tanks are one of the most significant weapons to emerge from World War I. Investigate and discuss the development, early use and effectiveness of tanks in the war.
10. The Hague Convention outlined the ‘rules of war’ that were in place during World War I. Referring to specific examples, discuss where and how these ‘rules of war’ were breached.
1. How did the public in Britain and other nations respond to the outbreak of war in August 1914? Was there unanimous support for the war?
2. What impact did Kaiser Wilhelm II have on military strategy and domestic policy after August 1914? How effective was the Kaiser as a wartime leader?
3. What powers did the Defence of the Realm Act give the British government? How did the Act affect life and work in wartime Britain?
4. Referring to either Britain, France or Germany, discuss how one national government managed and coordinated the war effort.
5. Investigate voluntary enlistment figures in one nation after August 1914. When and why did voluntary enlistment fall? What steps did the government take to encourage volunteers to enlist?
6. Focusing on three different nations, discuss when and why conscription was introduced – and whether this attracted any criticism or opposition.
7. What was the Shell Crisis of 1915? What impact did this crisis have on the British government and its wartime strategy?
8. Using specific examples, explain how wartime governments used censorship and propaganda to strengthen the war effort.
9. Why was there a change of wartime government in Britain in late 1916?
10. What was the ‘Silent Dictatorship’ in wartime Germany? How effective was this regime in managing both the war effort and the domestic situation?
Towards a conclusion
2. How did the leadership of Lloyd George (Britain) and Clemenceau (France) invigorate the war effort in their countries?
3. Discuss the issues and problems raised by conscription in Australia and Canada. Why was compulsory military service accepted in Europe but not in those two countries?
4. Why did the government of Tsar Nicholas II collapse in February and March 1917? How did the war help bring about revolution in Russia?
5. To what extent was the United States able to honour its pledge of neutrality in 1914-16?
6. Was the entry of the United States into World War I inevitable? Or was it a consequence of unforeseen factors?
7. What happened in the German Reichstag in July 1917? What did this reveal about German attitudes to the war?
8. What impact did the Allied naval blockade have on German society and the German war effort?
9. Explain the terms and effects of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed in March 1918. What implications did this treaty have, both for Russia and the war in general?
10. What did German commanders hope to achieve by launching the Spring Offensive? What problems or obstacles did they face?
Treaties and post-war Europe
2. Describe how the map of Europe was changed as a consequence of World War I and post-war treaties. What grievances might have arisen from these changes?
3. Explain the fate of the Hapsburg dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the conclusion of World War I.
4. What happened to the Ottoman Empire and its territories after World War I? Describe its transition from a 19th century empire to the modern nation-state of Turkey.
5. A French general said of the Treaty of Versailles that was not a peace but a “20 year armistice”. Was he correct and, if so, why?
6. Why was Article 231 included in the Treaty of Versailles? What was the response to this particular clause, both in Germany and around the world?
7. Discuss what happened to European colonial possessions after World War I. Were colonies retained, seized by other nations or liberated?
8. How did the United States respond to the Treaty of Versailles? What were the global implications of this American response?
9. How effective was the newly formed League of Nations at resolving conflict and securing world peace?
10. Investigate and discuss the social effects of World War I in at least two countries. How did ordinary people live, during and after the war?
11. How did World War I affect the social, political and economic status of women?