The resurgence of interest in World War II just over twenty years after its conclusion has meant that World War I has sometimes been overlooked in historical importance. However, as a worldwide war that lasted from 1914 to 1918 and claimed casualties (dead, wounded and missing) of more than 35 million, it deserves to be remembered and should act as a poignant reminder to today's political leaders of the folly of military aggression.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Europe, in the run up to 1914, could be described as a powder keg that was ready to explode, but the spark that eventually thrust the continent into full-out, bloody war was the assassination of a relatively obscure nobleman. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was on a royal visit to the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. While there, he and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian military organization called the Black Hand. This escalated into war between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia, and other European countries-including Germany and Britain-got sucked into the conflict.
World War I participants
The war saw two coalitions of countries fighting against each other. On the one side were the Central Powers, consisting of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and Bulgaria. They were pitched against the Allies, who were comprised of Britain, the United States, Russia, France, Italy, Serbia, Japan, Romania, Greece, Belgium and Portugal. The involvement of the United States and Japan meant that a European conflict had extended its influence far beyond European boundaries.
At its outset, many thought the so called "Great War" would be over quickly. Such optimism was to prove unfounded, however, and huge numbers of soldiers found themselves embroiled in the stalemate of trench warfare. Life in the trenches was extremely hard, and troops had to cope with disease and boredom as well as an intolerably high casualty rate from the prolonged fighting.
Unprecedented casualty rates
World War I wasn't the first major war in the world's history, but the advancement of science and technology meant that the armory possessed by both sides was more deadly than ever before. Ground troops faced machine guns and a barrage of bombs, and the war saw tanks and war planes utilized. It's difficult to accurately assess the final casualty count, but it has been estimated that of 65 million men mobilized, about 8.5 million died. If we added in the wounded, missing and those taken as prisoners of war, the casualty count rises to 37 million, or 57% of all men mobilized.
A famous Christmas cease-fire
One of the more heartwarming stories to have emerged from World War I happened on the first Christmas of the war, near Armentieres in France. German and British soldiers who had spent months shooting at each other called a temporary truce, when they emerged into no man's land, exchanged gifts and stories, sang Christmas carols and then played soccer, with the Germans reportedly winning 3-2! Similar occurrences were reported elsewhere, but sadly, such camaraderie was short-lived, and the bloody death count was soon resumed.