World War I was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, and the first truly global war. How long did the “Great War” last?
World War I lasted for four years between 1914 and 1918. It began when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists. It ended with the signing of the Armistice between Germany and the Allies on November 11, 1918.
For more on the timeline of World War I, read on.
Outbreak of War
A war that eventually engulfed much of the world began in eastern Europe in 1914. In 1908, Austria-Hungary had annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, angering Serbian nationalists who believed the territory should be part of Serbia.
A group of these nationalists resolved to kill the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand, while he was on an official visit to Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old member of the group shot and killed the Austro-Hungarian heir presumptive and his wife, Duchess Sophie.
A month later, on July 28, Austria-Hungary responded to the assassination by declaring war against Serbia. The move was the catalyst for an enormous chain reaction around Europe, with various alliances being called into action.
In the month of August alone, Germany declared war on Russia, France, and Belgium. In response, Britain declared war on Germany, Austria declared war on Russia. Montenegro, France, and Britain declared war on Austria. Montenegro and Japan declared war on Germany. Japan declared war on Germany and Austria declared war on Belgium.
It had taken weeks for most of Europe to become embroiled in a war in which the majority of countries involved held no true ill-feeling toward one another.
On September 6, 1914, Germany moved against France, beginning the First Battle of the Marne. The German army was less than a day away from Paris, but 6,000 extra infantrymen reinforced the French line.
Rather than retreat, the Germans fortified their position, digging a series of trenches north of the Aisne River. By the end of the war, trenches of this type would spread in vast lines across Europe, resulting in an extended and terribly costly stalemate.
In early November, Britain and France declared war on the Ottoman Empire, again expanding the theatre of war.
During the Second Battle of Ypres on April 22, 1915, the German army used chlorine gas on Allied trenches, killing 5,000 French and Algerian soldiers. This terrible new weapon began an era of chemical warfare and both sides utilized different forms of chemicals throughout the war, resulting in approximately 91,000 fatalities.
A few days later, British, Australian and New Zealand Army troops landed at Gallipoli in modern-day Turkey, attempting to capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. The nine-month offensive was disastrous, resulting in more than 200,000 Allied casualties.
Another terribly costly battle began in February 1916 in Verdun, France. Across the French and German armies, more than 300,000 men were killed and French villages were completely destroyed by relentless artillery fire.
On July 1, 1916, the British army suffered its bloodiest day in history at the First Battle of the Somme. Almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed in just one day and the four-month battle resulted in more than a million casualties.
The War’s End
A series of military failures by the Russian army, under the leadership of Tsar Nicholas II, bolstered rebellious sentiment in the capital, St. Petersburg. Nicholas abdicated on March 15, 1917, ending the era of Imperial Russia and setting in motion the rise of the Soviet Union.
On April 6, 1917, United States President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany, ending America’s three-year stance of neutrality. On November 20, 1917, Britain deployed tanks en masse for the first time in history, overwhelming German defenses and beginning the era of mechanized warfare.
On March 3, 1918, the new Soviet government signed a peace treaty, ending Russia’s participation in the war. It would take eight more months for the Allies and Germany to reach their own peace arrangement.
Germany had been in danger of being overrun, and growing instability at home meant that the country had no choice but to sign the Armistice on November 11, 1918. Even so, many in Germany felt that the country had been betrayed by its leaders, a sentiment that would be exploited during the rise of Nazi Germany a decade and a half later.