In late June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia. An escalation of threats and mobilization orders followed the incident, leading by mid-August to the outbreak of World War I, which pitted Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (the so-called Central Powers) against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Japan (the Allied Powers). The Allies were joined after 1917 by the United States. The four years of the Great War--as it was then known--saw unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction, thanks to grueling trench warfare and the introduction of modern weaponry such as machine guns, tanks and chemical weapons. By the time World War I ended in the defeat of the Central Powers in November 1918, more than 9 million soldiers had been killed and 21 million more wounded. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, determined post-war borders from Europe to the Middle East, established the League of Nations as an international peace organization and punished Germany for its aggression with reparations and the loss of territory. Tragically, the instability caused by World War I would help make possible the rise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and would, only two decades later, lead to a second devastating international conflict.
World War I Begins (1914)
Though tensions had been brewing in Europe--and especially in the troubled Balkan region--for years before conflict actually broke out, the spark that ignited World War I was struck in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Franz Josef and heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot to death along with his wife by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie set off a rapid chain of events: Austria-Hungary, like many in countries around the world, blamed the Serbian government for the attack and hoped to use the incident as justification for settling the question of Slavic nationalism once and for all. As Russia supported Serbia, Austria-Hungary waited to declare war until its leaders received assurances from German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II that Germany would support their cause in the event of a Russian intervention, which would likely involve Russia's ally, France, and possibly Great Britain as well.
On July 5, Kaiser Wilhelm secretly pledged his support, giving Austria-Hungary a so-called carte blanche or "blank check" assurance of Germany's backing in the case of war. The Dual Monarchy then sent an ultimatum to Serbia, with such harsh terms as to make it almost impossible to accept. Convinced that Vienna was readying for war, the Serbian government ordered the Serbian army to mobilize, and appealed to Russia for assistance. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the tenuous peace between Europe's great powers collapsed. Within a week, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Serbia had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, and World War I had begun.
World War I's Western Front (1914-17)
According to an aggressive military strategy known as the Schlieffen Plan (named for its mastermind, German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen), Germany began fighting World War I on two fronts, invading France through neutral Belgium in the west and confronting mighty Russia in the east. On August 4, 1914, German troops under Erich Ludendorff crossed the border into Belgium, in violation of that country's neutrality. In the first battle of World War I, the Germans assaulted the heavily fortified city of Liege, using the most powerful weapons in their arsenal--enormous siege cannons--to capture the city by August 15. Leaving death and destruction in their wake, including the shooting of civilians and the deliberate execution of Belgian priest, whom they accused of inciting civilian resistance, the Germans advanced through Belgium towards France.
In the First...