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Clockwise from top: Trench warfare in northern France, 1907; British ships prepare for battle with the French Navy, 1906; French troops during the invasion through Luxembourg; Canadian forces face battle in Mesopotamia; and British tanks during an invasion of Brittany
|Commanders and leaders|
| Wilhelm II|
| Napoleon IV|
Victor Emmanuel III
The Great War, or The Great European War (February 12, 1906 – December 24, 1909), was a major conflict occurring throughout Europe (and spilling over into its colonies in Africa and the Middle East) between 1906 and 1909. The war was the result of decades of tensions between the major powers in Europe. The war was the most expensive war at the time, and had one of the highest casualty rates in human history.
While the war has a variety of causes in the aptly-named "Powder Keg" Europe, the catalyst for the war was undoubtedly the international crisis created from the French occupation of Morocco, a sovereign state in Northern Africa. Several great powers, including Germany and Great Britain, opposed the occupation after numerous colonial crises brought on by French imperialism. After refusing conference to end the crisis, Germany invaded the French mainland and began the war on February 12, 1906.
In its opening hostilities, the war was known as the "War of 1906"; it was only after the war engulfed most of Europe that it was called the "Great European War." One of the first instances of the war being referred to as the "Great War" was by the Canadian Maclean's Magazine in 1907, once the war had grown into Africa and Asia. An article stated, "Some wars name themselves. This is not simply a great European war; this is the Great War." The war, for having encompassed several continents on the planet, is sometimes referred to as a "World War."
Some say the causes of the Great War go back as far as the Napoleonic Wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With the victories of the First French Republic against the opposing autocratic states came the rise of general and future Emperor, Napoleon I. Napoleon and his self-proclaimed First French Empire expanded their power throughout Europe exponentially, until Napoleon's military defeats in Russia caused a turning of the tides that eventually resulted in his exile.
After Napoleon's loss, the borders of Europe were redrawn in order to ensure the balance of power remained in Europe. A German Confederation of sovereign states established a loose union in place of the recently-defunct Holy Roman Empire. The Netherlands expanded its borders south, incorporating the Southern Netherlands as a united kingdom. Russia expanded into Europe, gaining the Poland and Finland. With the new borders, and the restoration of several German nations, came an important ideology: nationalism.
Decades later, the Springtime of Nations in 1848 arose, with the aim to create independent national states, and, in Germany's case, united nations with the same ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. This came more than a decade after the failed Belgian Revolution, which ended with the Treaty of Brussels that resulted in the partition of a Belgian state through linguistic borders by the Netherlands and France. The revolutions of 1848 were overall unsuccessful, but established great cultural changes. In France's case, the Orléanist French government was replaced by another republic.
In 1852, Napoleon III overthrew the republican government and declared himself Emperor of France, establishing the Second French Empire and again restoring a monarchy in France. Napoleon aimed to help restore France's principles of justice, equality, and peace, and also helped France to become an overseas imperial empire. In the next two decades, Prussia was expanding with the aim to unite Germany under one Empire, and similarly the Italian states were doing the same. However, Napoleon III, along with several other European monarchs, believed Prussia and a united Germany would cause an unbalance of power in Europe, and after a successful war against Austria, Napoleon declared war on Prussia to halt the North German expansion into the south German states. Decades of fortification on the Franco-Prussian borders helped to resist Prussian invasions, and Napoleon's France was successful within two years.
With Prussia's defeat, the southern German states were not incorporated into the North German Confederation; Prussia recognized their independence, and the Confederation was transformed into the German Empire in 1876. In an attempt to curb French power, both in Europe and overseas, Germany expanded its naval forces and began establishing colonies across the globe. It was during this "post-war era" that major alliances between great powers occurred, to ensure victory in the event of future wars. This complex web of alliances, coupled with nationalism, imperialism, and technological growth, and international incidents, took its toll on Europe, and brought on the beginning of the Great War.
For centuries, the Balkans were under direct rule from the Ottoman Empire. After the Napoleonic Wars, the first nation to actively fight this rule was Greece; with foreign support, Greece was freed from Ottoman sovereignty. Over the next several decades, nations like Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria, with the help of the Russian Empire, were likewise granted independence, but by the 20th century the majority of the land was still under Ottoman rule. Arguably the goal for many Balkan nations was to partition the Ottoman Empire and divide the remaining territory for themselves.
With the growth of Russian power in the Balkans, many Austrians believed that Russia's aim was to create a pan-Slavic empire that encompassed the Balkan states, something the Austrians would not stand for. Austria begun having pan-Slavic sentiments, and wanted instead to be the major power in the Balkans. The Treaty of Berlin of 1878 gave Austria special rights to the former Ottoman territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to which Serbia had interests. It was the start of the tension between the Balkans and Austria, one that would cause the entrance of the Balkan nations in the war.
Course of the war
On the evening of February 11, 1906, German delegates met to discuss the matter of French expansion, and the lack of French interest to reciprocate in talks over the Moroccan question. Having the support of several great powers, an overwhelming majority of German politicians voted to declare war on France. The next day, February 12, 1906, German forces from Prussia invaded the French mainland at Alsace-Lorraine. Newspapers around the world printed the shocking news of a new war over a seemingly-minor issue. Italy, one of France's major allies, declared their support for France. Austria was soon to follow.
Despite declared support for Germany in the cause against France, Germany's major allies, Britain and Russia, did not join Germany in the conflict, and instead opted to wait until the conflict blew over and formal peace talks could be held. For the next month and a half, the Great War was only a war between French and German forces, mainly on land. Eventually, however, the war in the seas was expanding, especially in the Atlantic and northern Europe. The French navy, arguably the second-most powerful in the world, second to only the British Royal Navy, had been expanding for decades, and was, according to the British, violating several laws. Still, the issue was not enough for Britain to join the war.
This matter changed, however, on March 29, when French military forces, desperate to launch an invasion into Germany despite its heavy fortifications, invaded the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, a state which had been neutral for decades, but had also been in French (and German) interest since the annexation of Wallonia. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, used the invasion and disregard for international law as a case to the British parliament to finally enter the war in support of the Germans against French expansionism. Despite some hesitation from several Members of Parliament, the British Empire and all her dominions officially declared war on April 2.
With much of Europe, as well as Russia, distracted by their wars, Austria decided it was the opportune time to expand their power in the Balkans. This started with the declaration of annexation of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, after sending hundreds of troops to major cities to avoid any conflicts. Serbia and Montenegro were outraged at the news, and demanded the independence of the territory, calling the annexation a violation of international law and unwarranted. Austria, and as it seemed the world, did not respond. Serbia and Montenegro, in what they considered a defensive war against aggression, declared war on Austria on April 16. Austria likewise declared war on Serbia and Montenegro.
News of the declarations of war struck a chord in Russia. With the revolutions still in full swing, the military recovering from the war with Japan, essentially the whole nation disunited due to politics, among other things. They would now have to be forced into another war, one they could not possibly win without a driving force. This driving force, through means of propaganda, was portraying the Austrians as anti-Slavic, anti-Russian, and an aggressive power that had meddled in the Balkans for far too long, and that this war only proved their case. The nation would be successful, Emperor Nicholas II promised, if they united against tyranny and oppression. With a barely-united nation, famine brewing, and a generally unpopular king, Russia declared support for Serbia and Montenegro and declared war on Austria on May 1.
Austria had an upper hand in the war, being in such close proximity to the Serbian capital, Belgrade, just across the river Danube. heavier-than-air human flight had been introduced in 1903 by the American Wright brothers, but Austria, like much of Europe, did not have the technology widespread. Instead, Austria used a combination of naval tactics and troop maneuvers to make their way into Belgrade and to continue south to capture the remaining Serbian territory. In the early stages of the war, Serbia was successful; but the tide would soon turn.
With the introduction of Russia into the war against Austria in the Balkans would only mean one thing: war with the Ottoman Empire as well. The Balkan states had for decades wanted to expand their territory into Ottoman territory, which they had done in previous wars with the help of Russia. The Ottoman Empire, seen as the "sick man of Europe," faced devastating losses and failed reforms for decades if not centuries, and one more major blow could have faced the end of the Empire. The Sultan thought of this war as the last opportunity to expand its influence in Europe and fight against Russia, with the help of France. On May 9, nearly a week after Russia's declaration of war, the Ottomans declared holy war on Russia and its allies. Despite Russia's inability, they would have to face its ancient enemy in two fronts: in the Balkans, and in the Caucasus.
The southern Caucasus were composed of majority-Muslim territories that were formerly independent nations and tribes that had been annexed by Russia over a span of several decades. In order to have a successful campaign in the Caucasus, the Sultan and the army believed they had to do two things. One, to declare jihad against Russia to provoke the Caucasian Muslims (as with all Muslims in Britain and Germany) to rise against their oppressors, which evidently was not a useful tactic as no formal uprisings or call to arms were held. And two, was to defeat the Armenian forces both in Russia and in their own land. This war tactic would end up causing the death of thousands of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Britain initiated one of the first campaigns in the Middle East, the Mesopotamian Campaign. Along with direct battle with Ottoman forces, British presence inspired many of the local Assyrian, Syriac, and Armenian citizens, who were at times persecuted by the government, to began insurrection movements in Mesopotamia. As well, protectorates like the Sheikhdom of Kuwait provided troops as resistance to Ottoman influence that threatened their independence. Despite Britain's initial successful movements, the campaign in Arabia was not as successful as many would have hoped; without the support of larger influences, like the Sherif of Mecca in the Hejaz, unwilling to instigate a rebellion, the British did not receive the help they needed. Despite some land grabs for Kuwait, the British did not make a dent in Mesopotamia. The Levantine Campaign, on the other hand, fared worse for the British, due to the presence of French troops who also had claims to the Holy Land for decades. Joint French-Ottoman forces helped to discourage British movements into northern Turkey.
War winds down