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5 Things you need to know about World War I: the key players, causes, and effects--which we're still living with 100 years later.

It was dubbed the "Great War," but for most Americans today, World War I might better be called "the forgotten war." It didn't have the tragedy of brother fighting brother during the Civil War, the glory of the D-Day invasion of World War II, or the internal strife of Vietnam to burn it into the nation's memory. And yet, the First World War, in which 10 million people died, was actually a crucial war for the United States.

World War I marked America's entry onto the world stage and the beginning of its status as a superpower. How the war ended laid the foundations for the rise of Communism and Fascism, paving the way for World War II (1939-45) and the Cold War that followed. Its effects in the Middle East still make headlines today, from the bloody civil war in Syria to ethnic clashes in Iraq and the ongoing territorial conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The last surviving veteran of WWI, an American from West Virginia, passed away in 2011. But on the 100th anniversary of the war's outbreak, the world is taking a look back at its legacy and why it mattered so much.

1 How the assassination of one man led to a worldwide war

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand's chauffeur took a wrong turn in Sarajevo (see map, p. 21) and a 19-year-old Serb terrorist named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife. Princip believed the empire controlled territories that should belong to Serbia, but his two shots soon triggered a world war lasting four years. Other assassinations hadn't led to war, so why did this one?

Because of Europe's tangled system of alliances, the conflict was almost waiting to happen. Various countries were bound by treaties to protect one another, and the assassination was like a spark that set in motion a chain reaction. When the dust had settled, the so-called "Central Powers," led by Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, were at war with the "Allied Powers," including Russia, Great Britain, and France.

At first, Europeans welcomed the war. Young men rushed to volunteer, worried that the fighting would end before they'd have their chance for glory and adventure. During what became known as "August Madness" in 1914, cheering crowds in London, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, St. Petersburg, and other cities celebrated the outbreak of the war. The British poet Rupert Brooke wrote, "Now God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour" (he later died in the war). Among the crowds in Munich, Germany, was a young Adolf Hitler, at loose ends as a failed artist. He later wrote that he experienced the outbreak of the war as a "salvation from the vexing feelings of youth.... Overcome by turbulent enthusiasm I fell to my knees and thanked heaven with an overflowing heart that I had the fortune to live in this time."

2 Why the U.S. entered the War in 1917

President Woodrow Wilson at first promised to keep the U.S. out of this European quagmire and announced that the nation was "too proud to fight." Many Americans were glad to be far from the slaughter. During his 1916 campaign for re-election, Wilson's slogan was, "He kept us out of the war."

Yet the U.S. became increasingly involved in the Allied war effort, sending arms and loaning money to Britain and France. Germany's policy of attacking civilian ships also made it harder for the U.S. to remain on the sidelines. On May 7, 1915, a German U-Boat torpedoed the Lusitania, a British passenger liner headed from New York to Liverpool, killing 128 Americans.

The final straw was the Zimmerman telegram, a message from Germany asking Mexico to join the war on its side in exchange for U.S. territory. The U.S. entered the war on the Allied side on April 6, 1917, with President Wilson declaring that America's aims were to "make the world safe for democracy" and ensure the "self-determination of nations." Nearly 2 million American troops were shipped to Europe, which proved decisive for the Allies.

3 Why WWW was called 'The War to End All Wars'

Obviously, this conflict wasn't called the First World War at the time since no one could have predicted the Second World War. Contemporaries called it "the war of nations," the "Great War," or simply the "world war." It was the idealistic British and Americans who named it the "war to end all wars."

Very soon after the breakout of war, the situation settled into a stalemate. That forced warring powers to provide rationales to their nations for the killing and sacrifice. Modern propaganda rose to new heights to mobilize some 70 million men. Many participants at the time thought that beyond territorial gain and treaty obligations, national survival and civilization itself were at stake. That's partly why the war dragged on for so long and why soldiers stayed in the trenches despite the horrors.

New types of weapons, including fighter planes, submarines, tanks, and chemical weapons, intensified the carnage. Recently invented machine guns mowed down soldiers through the barbed wire of no man's land between the front lines. The war marked the first strategic bombing campaigns of cities. Casualties were vast: Some 10 million soldiers died, and 20 million were wounded. Many soldiers' bodies were never found, adding to the heartbreak of their families.

4 How WWI remade the globe

With U.S. troops tipping the balance, Germany sued for peace in October 1918. The armistice took effect at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918 (which we still mark as Veterans Day).

When Wilson traveled to Paris for the peace conference that followed, huge crowds hailed him as "Wilson the Just." With Europe exhausted from the war, the U.S., for the first time, played the role of arbiter in world politics.

Wilson's plan called for a "just peace" in Europe and pushed for the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations. But leaders of Great Britain, France, and Italy wanted revenge. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, forced Germany to admit guilt and pay huge reparations for the war. Disillusioned with the negotiations and hoping to keep the U.S. out of future foreign entanglements, the Senate refused to ratify either the Treaty of Versailles or the League of Nations.

The First World War led to the collapse of four great empires: Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. By some calculations, their demise affected 20 percent of the world's population and 18 percent of its territory.

The Russian Empire collapsed before the war was even over. Facing food shortages and a staggering death toll, Russians already fed up with Tsarist role revolted and toppled the monarchy in February 1917. In November, revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin formed the world's first Communist state, the Soviet Union, which soon withdrew from the war. Observers said the postwar period presented a "choice between Wilson and Lenin," between democracy and Communism--a precursor to the Cold War.

Although Italy was on the winning side, many Italians were bitter at what they called a "mutilated peace" and at not having gotten more out of the war. Their discontent contributed to the rise of Fascism under Benito Mussolini, who sought to mobilize all Italians in service of the state just as in wartime.

In Germany, a precarious democracy was undermined by runaway inflation, the Great Depression, and a conspiracy theory known as the stab in the back legend, which claimed Germany hadn't lost the war militarily but had been defeated by minorities within, including Jews and Communists. In 1933, Adolf Hitler's Nazi party came to power and broke the Versailles Treaty. Six years later, Germany led Europe into World War II, which turned out to be a replay of the previous war, but even more devastating.

5 Consequences of the war that are still with us today

The war redrew political borders, not just in Europe but also in territories previously controlled by the four empires. Victors of the war, largely Britain and France, sliced up the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East into new states. They drew up borders for modern-day Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia--with little knowledge of realities on the ground.

During the war, the Allies had appealed to the national pride of different ethnic groups, like Arabs, implying that they would gain independence after the war. Instead, the League of Nations turned these territories into colonial "mandates" under the care of Britain or France.

That led to more conflict, which is still with us today. Rather than being united into one national state, Arabs found themselves divided among arbitrarily created states: Kurds, Shia Muslims, and Sunni Muslims were thrown together in Iraq, leading to decades of sectarian strife that continues; Lebanon was carved out as a separate nation from Syria, which has for years seen Lebanon as part of its own territory; and Arabs and Jews have clashed over Palestine, both before and after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

The war also changed societies. In the U.S., women had helped the war effort by making guns, bullets, grenades and bombs in factories, and by working unfamiliar jobs like trolley conductor or truck driver. For the first time, many women served as nurses in hospitals near the front lines. Their contributions led to a wave of reforms that gave women the vote in 1920.

Today, 100 years since the outbreak of the war, there's still no memorial to World War I at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. But the National World War One Memorial Foundation is working to get Congress to create one by 2017, the 100th anniversary of America's entry into the war. David DeJonge, cofounder of the foundation, says the memorial would finally recognize the 117,000 Americans who died in the first global conflict, which they were told would be the war to end all wars.


World War I

Lexile score: 1300L


World War I often doesn't get as much attention as America's other conflicts, but it helped create the world we live in today.

* What were some of the ways that World War I changed the world? Why do you think this war sometimes gets short shrift?

* How was World War I different from preceding wars?

* Why do you think the U.S. was initially hesitant to get involved in World War I? Why did it ultimately join the fight, and how did its involvement affect the outcome of the war?


How did World War I help shape the world we live in today? Write an essay exploring at least two important ways, using evidence from the text to support your response.


The U.S. first assumed a central role in world affairs at the end of World War L Should the U.S. continue to play such a role, or take a step back? Why?


Does it surprise you that World War I was sparked by an assassination? What other factors were at work? Do you think an assassination could trigger such a large-scale war today?

Why does the author describe World War I as a "total war"?

How did World War I pave the way for World War II?

How did World War I affect the role of women in the U.S.?

Why do you think the U.S. used the "Uncle Sam Wants You" slogan to recruit men to fight in the war? Would that slogan be successful today? Explain.


Britain designed the first tanks for use in World War I. At first, developers called them landships. The name tanks was used to trick the Germans into thinking the new vehicles were only for transporting water.

Download maps to compare the world's borders before and after World War I.



* Time, Continuity & Change * Power, Authority & Governance

Common Core READING INFORMATIONAL TEXT: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10


Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius is a professor at the University of Tennessee and director of its Center for the Study of War and Society.


5 Things to Know About World War I (p. 18)

(1) At the time World War I was being fought, people referred to the conflict as all of the following except

a the War of Nations.

b the World War.

c the Forgotten War.

d the Great War.

(2) World War I was sparked by a chain of events that began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne in

a Serbia.

b Austria-Hungary.

c Germany.

d Russia.

(3) What was the "August Madness" of 1914?

a the first strategic bombing campaign of a city

b the entry of the U.S. into World War I

c public celebrations of World War I's outbreak

d Germany's declaration of war on both Britain and France

(4) What helped draw the U.S. into World War I?

a The U.S. sought territory in Europe.

b A British passenger ship headed from New York to Liverpool was torpedoed, killing 128 Americans.

c Mexico and Canada both joined the Allied Powers.

d all of the above

(5) Which of the following was not an effect of World War I?

a discontent in Italy and Germany

b the division of the Middle East into arbitrarily created states

c a wave of reforms related to women's role in U.S. society

d the breakup of the Soviet Union into small, independent states


(1) HOW did Europeans feel about the war when it began? Why do you think they felt this way?

(2) What new weapons were used in World War I? How do you think this new technology affected the outcome of the war? How might it have affected how the war was viewed by the public?

(3) Why didn't the U.S. ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations?


(1) [c] the Forgotten War.

(2) [b] Austria-Hungary.

(3) [c] public celebrations of World War I's outbreak

(4) [b] A British passenger ship headed from New York to Liverpool was torpedoed, killing 128 Americans.

(5) [d] the breakup of the Soviet Union into small, independent states
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Title Annotation:TIME PAST: 1914
Author:Liulevicius, Vejas Gabriel
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Mar 17, 2014
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