World History 2 175 - 11.2.3 The World at War

Some German units never made it out of Belgium, and fierce fighting there continued for the duration of the war. Other units swept south and continued their advance through northern France. French troops moved swiftly to block them. The Battle of the Marne in September 1914 created front lines where a stalemate lasted several years as both sides dug a trench system from which to fight. German armies were moving toward Paris when the French were able to exploit a gap between two of the divisions. A series of flanking maneuvers ensued as the French and Germans both raced to the sea. Additional French troops were called up, and at one point the French reserves even commandeered the taxicabs of Paris to ferry themselves to the front. The Battle of the Marne went on for a week before the German advance was stopped. The battle was fought so close to Paris that civilians could hear the sounds of the fighting. Given an information blackout due to government censors, rumors about the threat to Paris were rampant. Approximately 800,000 people left the city, anticipating a German invasion.

Link to Learning

Examine sheet music covers for the popular songs of World War I, such as “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile” at the Smithsonian. What do they tell you about the way these songs sought to inspire people on the battlefield and the home front?

In the east, Germany found itself facing the Russians in battle much earlier than expected. Due to its size, the potential of the Russian military was great, but the reality was quite different; the troops were poorly equipped and poorly trained. At the Battle of Tannenberg, for example, communication problems developed among the Russian high command, while the troops suffered from lack of supplies; the country’s limited rail lines could not keep up with their needs. The Germans decimated them. They took more than 90,000 prisoners, and another 50,000 Russians had become casualties in the week of fighting. The Germans suffered fewer than 20,000 casualties in comparison. The general in command of the Russian army committed suicide.

The Russians’ dearth of supplies also featured in a major engagement with the Austro-Hungarian forces as Russia laid siege to Przemyśl in modern-day Poland. As the siege continued from the summer into the fall and then the winter, Russian soldiers lacked coats and boots to withstand the plummeting temperatures, though Russia ultimately took the city in 1915. The Austro-Hungarian forces bore the brunt of the siege and fighting in the nearby mountains to relieve the fortress, experiencing well over 900,000 casualties—an astronomical number.

The naval power of Great Britain was soon brought to bear. The British instituted a blockade of German ports that made it exceedingly difficult for Germany to import the goods it needed. The country’s industrial strength helped it survive this blockade for a good portion of the war, but by its last year, shortages were being felt by every German family. Its navy was not large enough to implement a retaliatory blockade against Britain, but Germany did consider the North Sea a war zone and used mines and submarines to sink ships sailing there.

In Asia, the coming of the war caused nations to take sides. The Japanese Empire, emboldened by its success against Russia less than a decade earlier in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), saw the opportunity to increase its standing in the world and sided with the Allies. Japanese forces attacked the German colonial port at Qingdao (Tsingtao), a city on the Chinese coast that Germany had held for less than twenty years as the planned headquarters of its Asian empire. In mid-August 1914, Japan demanded that Germany abandon Qingdao. When it refused, Japan blockaded the port and began bombarding it. The attacks continued for two months until Germany surrendered the city in November. Japan was able to cement its relationship with Great Britain and give its modernizing military another victory that increased its pride.

The Allies rejected offers of military troops from China at the beginning of the war. By 1916, however, the situation had changed, and Britain and France allowed Chinese laborers to come to Europe. China had been willing to send combat troops, hoping to gain leverage in treaty negotiations after the war and support for ousting Japan from its borders, but Japan, which had taken control of Qingdao and hoped to establish itself as the unquestioned military power in Asia, would not permit it. Thus, approximately 130,000 Chinese laborers arrived in Europe, to repair equipment and dig trenches but not to fight.

Other combatant powers entered the war after the summer of 1914. In October, the Ottoman Empire engaged in combat on behalf of the Central powers by attacking Russia’s fleet on the Black Sea. For the Ottomans, entering into the war was a calculated risk. The empire hoped to regain some standing in the world and even possibly more territory, and clear bonds had developed between the Ottoman leadership and that of Germany over the past years. Other countries soon followed suit. Bulgaria entered the war via secret agreement in 1915 on the side of the Central powers, also hoping for territorial acquisition at the conclusion of the fighting. On the other side of the spectrum, Italy had announced its neutrality when the war broke out, but many Italians harbored a dislike of Austria-Hungary, and there had been many disagreements about the border between the two countries over the years. In May 1915, Italy declared war against the Central powers, having first secured Allied support through a secret agreement in April. The hope of reclaiming land lost to Austria-Hungary was paramount in its decision.

Isolationism had been a consistent practice of U.S. foreign policy, and the United States planned to maintain it, while at the same time selling products to both the Allied powers of Britain and France and the Central powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. It was clear from the outset, however, that “the vast majority of American trade went to the Allies,” partly because of Britain’s substantial role in U.S. naval, merchant, and credit operations but also because the British blockade made it difficult for anyone to trade with Germany. U.S. banks were soon extending loans and lines of credit to both sides as well, although approximately $2 billion had been extended to the Allies by the spring of 1917 and a mere $27 million to the Central powers.

Among the American public, there was little support for or interest in entering this European war. Not hampered by censorship of the news as the combatant powers were, American readers could easily learn about the casualty numbers and the horror of the war. They congratulated themselves that they were not party to this insanity and showed little desire to enter it.

There were additional complicating issues for the United States. The country’s volunteer army was quite small and would have little impact on the war if it entered at this time. While businesses and banks were siding with the Allied cause, a substantial number of Irish immigrants were vehemently anti-British because of ongoing conflicts in Ireland, and it was questionable how they would react to the United States entering a war on the British side. There was also a significantly large German population in the United States that could oppose siding with the Allies. President Woodrow Wilson had shown little interest in foreign policy in his previous career as a professor of government and history; instead, he saw domestic reform as his administration’s main focus when he came into office. He had been willing to intervene in Latin America as a neighboring region but did not have that same approach regarding Europe. However, his commitment to the freedom of the seas and the rights of neutral nations in times of war soon put him on a collision course with Germany.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax