Epic History: World War One – 1914


1914. The Great Powers of Europe are divided
into two rival alliances: The Triple Entente: France, Britain and Russia,
united by fear and suspicion of Germany, Europe’s new strongest power. And the Triple Alliance: Germany, which fears
encirclement by its rivals; Austro-Hungary, clinging onto a fragile empire; and Italy,
seeking gains at French expense. The spark comes on 28th June, in the city
of Sarajevo. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian
throne, is assassinated by a 19 year-old Slav nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. Austro-Hungary accuses its Balkan rival Serbia
of having aided the assassin, and sends an ultimatum, demanding humiliating concessions. Serbia rejects the ultimatum, and Austro-Hungary
declares war. Within hours Austrian forces are shelling
Belgrade. The Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, feels honour-bound
to defend Serbia, a fellow Slav nation, and orders the Russian army to mobilise. German Emperor Wilhelm II has promised his
support to Austro-Hungary. He and his generals see conflict with Russia as inevitable – and
the sooner the better, as Russian strength grows year on year. Russian mobilisation is used to justify German
mobilisation, followed by a declaration of war on Russia. Germany knows war with Russia means war with
Russia’s ally, France. It has developed the Schlieffen Plan to meet this threat of a war
on two fronts – first, its armies will advance rapidly through neutral Belgium to encircle
and destroy French armies near Paris, and win a quick victory. Then its forces can move
east to deal with Russia, whose huge army will take much longer to mobilise. And so Germany declares war on France. Six
million men are now marching to war across Europe. Italy, however, remains neutral. The terms
of the Triple Alliance don’t bind it to join an offensive war. The United States also declares its neutrality.
President Wilson and the American public have no desire to get entangled in Europe’s war. Britain is France’s ally, but at first it’s
not clear if it will join the war against Germany. But when German troops invade Belgium,
whose neutrality Britain has guaranteed, an ultimatum is sent from London to Berlin demanding
they withdraw. It’s ignored, and Britain declares war. A British Expeditionary Force lands in France,
while the German invasion is held up for crucial days by Belgian resistance at the fortress-city
of Liège. German troops commit several massacres against
Belgian civilians. The atrocities are inflated by Allied propaganda, and help turn public
opinion in neutral countries against Germany. France, unaware of Germany’s great encircling
attack, launches Plan XVII, an offensive into German territory. But in the Battle of the
Frontiers they’re driven back, with enormous losses on both sides. The British Expeditionary Force clashes with
the German army at Mons. But the British are heavily outnumbered, and soon join the French
in retreat. The Allies make their stand at the River Marne,
40 miles outside Paris. Their desperate counterattack saves the city and drives the Germans back.
Both sides suffer a quarter of a million casualties. ‘The Race to the Sea’ begins, as both sides
try to outflank each other to the north. A series of clashes leads to the First Battle
of Ypres, where the Allies desperately cling on and prevent a German breakthrough. There
are more heavy losses on both sides. The two armies then dig-in along the entire
350 mile front, seeking shelter from deadly machinegun fire and artillery shells. Trench
warfare has begun. British warships win the first naval battle
of the war at Heligoland Bight, sinking three German cruisers. Britain has the most powerful navy in the
world: 29 modern battleships to Germany’s 19. They now impose a naval blockade on Germany,
preventing contraband goods, including food, from reaching it by sea. The aim is to bring
Germany’s economy to its knees and force it to surrender. But a week later, the British cruiser HMS
Pathfinder becomes the first victim in history of a lethal new weapon – the submarine-launched
torpedo. German submarines, or U-boats, have a surface
range of 9000 miles, and can attack undetected from beneath the waves. They herald a deadly
new challenge to Britain’s command of the seas. On the Eastern Front, Russian armies invade
East Prussia. But they blunder into disaster at the Battle of Tannenberg, where General
von Hindenburg and his Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff mastermind a brilliant German victory,
taking 90,000 prisoners and destroying an entire Russian army. The Russians contribute to their own defeat
by transmitting uncoded wireless messages. A second massive German victory at Masurian
Lakes forces the Russians into retreat. In just six weeks, the Russian army suffers
nearly a third of a million casualties. Meanwhile Austro-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia
suffers a humiliating reverse at the Battle of Cer. Austro-Hungary’s offensive against
Russia also ends in disaster and retreat, with the loss of more than 300,000 men. The
fortress-town of Przemyśl is cut-off and besieged by the Russians. The Germans are forced to come to the rescue,
launching a diversionary attack towards Warsaw. It leads to weeks of brutal, winter fighting
around the Polish city of Łódź, but there is no clear winner. Meanwhile, the Turkish Ottoman Empire has
joined the Central Powers, declaring war on its old enemy, Russia. Turkish warships bombard
the Russian ports of Odessa and Sevastopol, while in the Caucasus, Russian troops cross
the Turkish frontier. Beyond Europe, the war rages on the world’s
oceans and in far-flung European colonies. German troops cross into British East Africa
(modern Kenya) and occupy Taveta; while Allied forces seize the German colony of Togoland
(modern Togo). But British forces invading German Cameroon
are defeated at Garua and Nsanakong, while a 3,000 strong force attacking German South-West
Africa, modern Namibia, is captured at Sandfontein. A month later, British landings at Tanga end
in chaos and defeat at the hands of a much smaller German force led by Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck. Cut-off from Germany, Lettow-Vorbeck goes
on to wage a highly successful guerilla war against the Allies, tying down huge numbers
of troops. In Asia, Japan honours its treaty with Britain
and declares war on Germany. Japanese forces go on to seize the German naval base at Tsingtao. The German colonies of Samoa and New Guinea
surrender to troops from New Zealand and Australia. But in the Pacific, off the coast of Chile,
German Admiral von Spee’s powerful East Asia squadron sinks two British cruisers at the
Battle of Coronel. Both ships are lost with all hands. Five weeks later, he runs into a British naval
task force at the Falkland Islands. Four of the five German cruisers are sunk. Von Spee
goes down with his flagship. While in the Middle East, British troops seize
control of the Ottoman port of Basra, securing access to the vital Persian oil that fuels
the British fleet. That winter, Austrian troops finally capture
Belgrade, but the Serbs then counterattack and drive them back once more. The fighting in Serbia has already cost around
200,000 casualties on each side. In the North Sea, German warships mount a
hit-and-run raid against English coastal towns, shelling Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough,
and killing more than a hundred civilians. On the Western Front, the French launch their
first major offensive against the German lines: but the First Battle of Champagne leads to
small gains at a cost of 90,000 casualties. While in the Caucasus, an Ottoman offensive
through the mountains in midwinter ends in disaster at Sarikamish. Turkish casualties
total 60,000, many frozen to death. On the Western Front, that first Christmas
is marked in some sectors by a short truce, and games of football in No Man’s Land, the
killing zone between the trenches.

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