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Kevin Airrington is a professional genealogist & historian with 15+ years experience. Specializing in adoptions - It's Who I Am!™
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What Was World War I?

World War I was an extremely bloody war that engulfed Europe from 1914 to 1918 with huge losses of life and little ground lost or won. Fought mostly by soldiers in trenches World War I saw an estimated 10 million military deaths and another 20 million wounded. While many hoped that World War I would be the war to end all wars in actuality the concluding peace treaty set the stage for World War II.

Dates: 28 July 1914- 11 November 1918

Also Known As: The Great War WWI the First World War



The Start of World War I

The spark that started World War I was the assassination of Austrias Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The assassination occurred on June 28 1914 while Ferdinand was visiting the city of Sarajevo in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Although Archduke Franz Ferdinand the nephew of Austrias emperor and heir-apparent to the throne was not very well liked by most his assassination by a Serb nationalist was viewed as a great excuse to attack Austria-Hungarys troublesome neighbor Serbia.

However instead of reacting quickly to the incident Austria-Hungary made sure they had the backing of Germany with whom they had a treaty before they proceeded. This gave Serbia time to get the backing of Russia with whom they had a treaty.

The calls for back-up didnt end there. Russia also had a treaty with France and Britain.

This meant that by the time Austria-Hungary officially declared war on Serbia on July 28 1914 an entire month after the assassination much of Europe had already become entangled in the dispute.

At the start of the war these were the major players (more countries joined the war later):

  • Allied Forces (a.k.a. the Allies): France the United Kingdom Russia
  • Central Powers: Germany and Austria-Hungary

Schlieffen Plan vs. Plan XVII

Germany didnt want to fight both Russia in the east and France in the west so they enacted their long-standing Schlieffen Plan. The Schlieffen Plan was created by Alfred Graf von Schlieffen who was the chief of the German general staff from 1891 to 1905.

Schlieffen believed that it would take about six weeks for Russia to mobilize their troops and supplies. So if Germany placed a nominal number of soldiers in the east the majority of Germanys soldiers and supplies could be used for a quick attack in the west.

Since Germany was facing this exact scenario of a two-front war at the beginning of World War I Germany decided to enact the Schlieffen Plan. While Russia continued to mobilize Germany decided to attack France by going through neutral Belgium. Since Britain had a treaty with Belgium the attack on Belgium officially brought Britain into the war.

While Germany was enacting its Schlieffen Plan the French enacted their own prepared plan called Plan XVII. This plan was created in 191 and called for quick mobilization in response to a German attack through Belgium.

As German troops moved south into France and the French and British troops moved north to meet them the massive armies met each other in a stalemate. By September 1914 neither side could force the other to move so each side began to dig trenches. For the next four years the troops would fight from these trenches.

A War of Attrition

From 1914 to 1917 soldiers on each side of the line fought from their trenches. They fired artillery onto the enemys position and lobbed grenades. However each time military leaders ordered a full-fledged attack the soldiers were forced to leave the safety of their trenches.

The only way to overtake the other sides trench was for the soldiers to cross No Mans Land the area between the trenches on foot. Out in the open thousands of soldiers raced across this barren land in the hopes of reaching the other side. Often most were hewn down by machine-gun fire and artillery before they even got close.

Because of the nature of trench warfare millions of young men were slaughtered in the battles of World War I. The war quickly became one of attrition which meant that with so many soldiers being killed daily eventually the side with the most men would win the war.

By 1917 the Allies were starting to run low on young men.





My Grandfather – Glen Hall Hemphill – WWI Served at the end of the war.  Him and his brother Percy Clay Hemphill served as carpenters building airplanes.  They were stationed at Camp White in Oregon and a base near Vancouver Washington.

Middle: Glen Hall Hemphill (My Grandfather)


Army Barracks


Army Barracks


Middle: Glen Hall Hemphill (My Grandfather)


Top: Glen Hall Hemphill (My Grandfather)


Washing dishes on vase in Vancouver Washington






U.S. Enters the War and Russia Gets Out

The Allies needed help and they were hoping that the United States with its vast resources of men and materials would join on their side. However for years the U.S. had clung to their idea of isolationism. Plus the U.S. just didnt want to be involved in a war that seemed so far away and that didnt seem to affect them in any great way.

However there were two major events that changed American public opinion about the war. The first occurred in 1915 when a German U-boat (submarine) sunk the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania. Considered by Americans to be a neutral ship that carried mostly passengers Americans were furious when the Germans sank it especially since 159 of the passengers were Americans.

The second was the Zimmermann Telegram. In early 1917 Germany sent Mexico a coded message promising portions of U.S. land in return for Mexico joining World War I against the United States. The message was intercepted by Britain translated and shown to the United States. This brought the war to U.S. soil giving the U.S. a real reason to enter the war on the side of the Allies.

On April 6 1917 the United States officially declared war on Germany.

As the United States was entering World War I Russia was getting ready to get out.

In 1917 Russia became swept up in an internal revolution that removed the czar from power. The new communist government wanting to focus on internal troubles sought a way to remove Russia from World War I. Negotiating separately from the rest of the Allies Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany on March 3 1918.

With the war in the east ended Germany was able to divert those troops to the west in order to face the new American soldiers.

Armistice and the Versailles Treaty

The fighting in the west continued for another year. Millions more soldiers died while little land was gained. However the freshness of the American troops made a huge difference. While the European troops were tired from years of war the Americans remained enthusiastic. Soon the Germans were retreating and the Allies were advancing. The end of the war was near.

At the end of 1918 an armistice was finally agreed upon. The fighting was to end on the 11th hour of 11th day of 11th month (i.e. 11 am on Nov. 11 1918).

For the next several months diplomats argued and compromised together in order to come up with the Versailles Treaty. The Versailles Treaty was the peace treaty that ended World War I; however a number of its terms were so controversial that it also set the stage for World War II.

The carnage left behind by the end of World War I was staggering. By the end of the war an estimated 10 million soldiers were killed. That averages to about 6500 deaths a day every day. Plus millions of civilians were also killed. World War I is especially remembered for its slaughter for it was one of the bloodiest wars in history.

The Versailles Treaty signed on June 28 1919 was the peace settlement between Germany and the Allied Powers that officially ended World War I. However the conditions in the treaty were so punitive upon Germany that many believe the Versailles Treaty laid the groundwork for the eventual rise of Nazis in Germany and the eruption of World War II.

Debated at the Paris Peace Conference

The details of the Versailles Treaty had been debated and finalized at the Paris Peace Conference which opened on January 18 1919– just over two months after the fighting on the Western Front ended. Although many diplomats from the Allied Powers participated Germany was not invited to the conference. The big three who were the most influential in the debates were Prime Minister David Lloyd George of the United Kingdom Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France and President Woodrow Wilson of the United States.

On May 7 1919 the Versailles Treaty was handed over to Germany with the express instructions that they had only three weeks in which to accept the Treaty. Considering that in many ways the Versailles Treaty was meant to punish Germany Germany of course found much fault with the Versailles Treaty. Although Germany sent back a list of complaints over the Treaty the Allied Powers ignored most of them.

The Versailles Treaty: A Very Long Document

The Versailles Treaty itself is very long and extensive document made up of 440 Articles (plus Annexes) which have been divided into 15 parts. The first part of the Versailles Treaty established the League of Nations. Other parts included the terms of military limitations prisoners of war finances access to ports and waterways and reparations.

Versailles Treaty Terms Spark Controversy

The most controversial aspects of the Versailles Treaty were that Germany was to take full responsibility for the damage caused during World War I (known as the war guilt clause Article 231) the major land concessions forced upon Germany (including the loss of all her colonies) the limitation of the German army to 100000 men and the extremely large sum in reparations Germany was to pay to the Allied Powers.

The terms of the Versailles Treaty were so seemingly hostile to Germany that German Chancellor Philipp Scheidemann resigned rather than sign it. However Germany realized they had to sign it for they no longer had any military power left to resist.

Versailles Treaty Signed

On June 28 1919 exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Germanys representatives Hermann Müller and Johannes Bell signed the Versailles Treaty in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles near Paris France.



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