More than a hundred years on, events of the First World War are seared into collective consciousness. ‘The war to end all wars’ claimed the lives of 10 million soldiers, caused the downfall of multiple empires, sparked the beginning of Russia’s communist revolution and – most damagingly – laid the brutal foundations for the Second World War.
We’ve rounded up 10 decisive moments – from the assassination of a prince on a balmy day in Sarajevo to the signing of an armistice in a French forest – which altered the course of the war and continue to shape our lives today.
1. Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand is assassinated (28 June 1914)
Two gunshots in Sarajevo June 1914 ignited the fires of conflict and sucked Europe into World War One. Mere hours after narrowly escaping a separate assassination attempt, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were killed by Bosnian Serb nationalist and Black Hand member Gavrilo Princip.
The Austria-Hungarian government saw the assassination as a direct attack on the country, believing that the Serbians had helped the Bosnian terrorists in the attack.
2. War is declared (July-August 1914)
The Austria-Hungarian government made harsh demands on the Serbians, which the Serbians rejected, prompting Austria-Hungary to declare war against them in July 1914. Mere days later, Russia began to mobilise its army to protect Serbia, prompting Germany to declare war on Russia in order to support its ally Austria-Hungary.
In August, France got involved, mobilising its army to help ally Russia, causing Germany to declare war on France and move their troops into Belgium. The next day, Britain – allies of France and Russia – declared war against Germany for violating Belgium’s neutrality. Japan then declared war on Germany, and America announced their neutrality. The war had begun.
3. The first Battle of Ypres (October 1914)
Fought between October and November 1914, the first battle of Ypres in West Flanders, Belgium, was the climactic fight of the ‘Race to the Sea’, an attempt by the German army to break through Allied lines and capture French ports on the English Channel to gain access to the North Sea and beyond.
It was horribly bloody, with neither side gaining much ground and Allied soldier losses including 54,000 British, 50,000 French, and 20,000 Belgian soldiers killed, wounded, or missing, and German casualties numbering more than 130,000. What was most notable about the battle, however, was the introduction of trench warfare, which became commonplace along the Western Front for the rest of the war.
4. The Gallipoli Campaign begins (April 1915)
Urged by Winston Churchill, the Allied campaign landed in the Gallipoli peninsula in April 1915 with the aim of breaking through German-allied Ottoman Turkey’s Dardanelles Strait, which would allow them to attack Germany and Austria from the east and establish a link with Russia.
It proved to be catastrophic for the Allies, resulting in 180,000 deaths before they withdrew in January 1916. Australia and New Zealand also lost more than 10,000 soldiers; however, Gallipoli was a defining event, marking the first time the newly-independent countries fought under their own flags.
5. Germany sinks HMS Lusitania (May 1915)
In May 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the British-owned luxury steamship Lusitania, killing 1,195 people, including 128 Americans. On top of the human toll, this deeply angered the US, as Germany had broken international ‘prize laws’ which declared that ships had to be warned of imminent attacks. Germany defended their actions, however, stating that the ship was carrying weapons intended for warfare.
Anger grew in America, with President Woodrow Wilson urging caution and neutrality while former President Theodore Roosevelt demanded swift retaliation. Throngs of men enlisted in Britain, and Churchill noted that ‘The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of 100,000 men.’ Along with the Zimmerman Telegraph, Lusitania sinking was one of the factors that eventually caused the US to enter the war.
6. The Battle of the Somme (July 1916)
Widely acknowledged to have been the bloodiest battle of the First World War, the Battle of the Somme caused more than a million casualties, including around 400,000 dead or missing, over the course of 141 days. The predominantly British Allied force aimed to relieve pressure on the French, who were suffering in Verdun, by attacking Germans hundreds of kilometres away in the Somme.
The battle remains one of the deadliest in human history, with 20,000 dead or missing and 40,000 wounded within the first few hours of the battle. Throughout the battle, both sides lost an equivalent of four regiments of soldiers daily. When it was over, the Allies had only advanced a few kilometres.
7. The US enters the war (January-June 1917)
In January 1917, Germany stepped up their campaign of attacking British merchant vessels with U-boat submarines. The US was angered by Germany torpedoing neutral ships in the Atlantic which often carried US citizens. In March 1917, British intelligence intercepted the Zimmermann Telegram, a secret communication from Germany which proposed an alliance with Mexico if the US were to enter the war.
Public outcry grew, and Washington declared war on Germany in April, with the first US deployment of troops arriving in France at the end of June. By mid-1918, there were one million US troops involved in the conflict, and by the end, there were two million, with a death toll of nearly 117,000.
8. The Battle of Passchendaele (July 1917)
The battle of Passchendaele has been described by historian A. J. P. Taylor as ‘the blindest struggle of a blind war.’ Taking on a symbolic significance far greater than its strategic worth, predominantly British Allied troops launched an attack to seize key ridges near Ypres. It only ended when both sides collapsed, exhausted, in the Flanders mud.
The Allies achieved victory, but only after months of fighting in horrific conditions and sustaining heavy casualties – around half a million, with around 150,000 dead. It took the British 14 weeks to gain ground which would take a few hours to walk today.
The brutal conditions at Passchendaele have been immortalised in Siegfried Sassoon’s famous poem ‘Memorial Tablet’, which reads: ‘I died in hell— (They called it Passchendaele).’
9. The Bolshevik Revolution (November 1917)
Between 1914 and 1917, Russia’s poorly-equipped army lost more than two million soldiers on the Eastern Front. This became a hugely unpopular conflict, with rioting escalating into revolution and forcing the abdication of Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II, in early 1917.
The new socialist government battled to impose control, but did not want to withdraw from the war. Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution with the aim of finding a way out of the war. By December, Lenin had agreed an armistice with Germany, and in March, the disastrous treaty of Brest-Litovsk ceded enormous chunks of territory to Germany – including Poland, the Baltic states, and Finland – reducing Russia’s population by nearly a third.
10. The signing of the Armistice (11 November 1918)
In early 1918 the Allies were suffering, having been hit hard by four major German attacks. Supported by US troops, they launched a counter-attack in July, using tanks on a large scale which proved successful and constituted a vital breakthrough, forcing a German retreat on all sides. Crucially, Germany’s allies began to dissolve, with Bulgaria agreeing to an armistice by the end of September, Austria being defeated by late October, and Turkey halting their movements a few days later. Kaiser Wilhelm II was then forced to abdicate in a crippled Germany.
On 11 November, a German delegation met French forces commander General Ferdinand Foch in a secluded forest north of Paris, and agreed to an armistice. Terms of the armistice included Germany halting hostilities immediately, evacuating large areas it had occupied in less than a fortnight, surrendering vast amounts of war material, and releasing all Allied prisoners of war immediately.
The deal was signed at 5.20am. The ceasefire began at 11.00am. The First World War was over.