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Lecture: The Great War


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Timeline © Copyright 2008 Eric Davis http://hopes-and-dreams.net

The Great War

The Great War, as it began in Europe, was the result of complex history and alliances. As you review this part of the lecture, you will need a historical map in front of you.

"Map 1914"

The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71)

Long before the Great War, the principality of Prussia, under the genius Otto von Bismarck, had unified all the disparate German states into one German Empire. It took much wheeling and dealing, and one of the most serious obstacles to unification was France. France wanted to expand territorially in Europe. Bismarck cleverly tricked the French into war in 1870 (oh, that's another story).

Both sides believed that they had a secret weapon: the machine gun. Why they believed this I don't know, since articles about the machine gun had been published in scientific journals all over Europe. Anyway, both sides had machine guns. But since both sides were new to the technology, they used it in different ways. The machine gun in those days was a huge weapon, mounted on a giant caisson; it looked like a piece of field artillery. So the French gave it to the artillery guys at the back of the battalions, replacing some of their field artillery with machine guns. The Prussians trained a separate machine gun corps, did not replace any field artillery, and put the machine gunners at the front. Understandably, Prussia had an advantage when the two went into battle during the Franco-Prussian War.

After the war, Prussia wanted to humiliate France so that she couldn't threaten the united Germany again. They didn't care much about territory, but they felt they had to take Alsace-Lorraine, the pair of duchies on the Franco-German border. The French had not forgotten the humiliation, or the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, by the year 1914. They had even barricaded the entire area in case Prussia should threaten them further.

The Assassination

Meanwhile, in Austria-Hungary, there was a difference of opinion as to the political status of a Balkan state called Bosnia. "The Assassination"Austria-Hungary (already comprised of several different regions, religions and ethnicities) felt that Bosnia was part of its empire. Bosnia, with a Serbian population closely tied to its neighbor (Serbia) felt it was independent.

So when Franz Ferdinand, the archduke and heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, decided to take his wife on vacation to Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia), it wasn't just a fun holiday in the Balkans. A political point was being made: that the archduke was on holiday in an area that was part of his empire. He and his wife were shot and killed by a teenage Bosnian revolutionary.

Austria-Hungary's government assumed (probably correctly) that the kid and his co-conspirators had been financed and assisted by the government of Serbia. So they issued an ultimatum: either Serbia took responsibility for the assassination, or Austria-Hungary would declare war on them. Serbia stalled for time, and Austria-Hungary declared war.

Secret Treaties

PBS World War I animation on VimeoTextual description here.

from PBS The Great War
© 1996 - 2004 Community Television of Southern California
That should have been the end of it. Austria-Hungary, with a large army, should have trounced little Serbia in punishment. It should have been over in a few weeks. But during the early 20th century, the nations of Europe had become involved in a complex system of secret treaties. It's really the treaties that made it a major war.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Serbia had a secret treaty with her fellow Slavic nation, Russia, that said if anyone attacked Serbia, Russia would enter the war on her side. So Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary.

Austria-Hungary had a secret treaty with Germany, saying if anyone declared war on Austria-Hungary, Germany would come in on her side. So Germany declared war on Russia.

Russia had a secret treaty with France, that said if anyone declared war on Russia (especially Germany), France would come in on her side.

So then it was Austria-Hungary and Germany versus Serbia, Russia and France. Still, Austria-Hungary and Germany (the Central Powers) should have been OK. Germany, in order to avoid fighting on two fronts, could take out France in a jiffy by marching into Paris (as they had done in the Franco-Prussian War). Germany could then turn its full effort against Russia and Serbia, with help from Austria-Hungary.

Germany had the best ground troops in the world. Piece of cake.

But to complete the plan, Germany had to march quickly through Belgium to get to Paris, because the Alsace-Lorraine route had all the French defenses. Belgium did not wish to be marched through, but Germany did it anyway. Turns out that Belgium had a secret treaty with Great Britain, who had the finest navy in the world.

Document: Remember Belgium (poster)

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A World War

This became a world war for several reasons. First, the Ottoman Empire joined in on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. They held a crucial geographic position: the Bosporus, where ships could go between Russia and the Mediterranean. Both sides wanted the Ottomans, but they felt they owed Germany for military training provided over the years. They also felt the Central Powers had a better chance of winning.

The second reason was that many of the European powers (including Britain, Germany, France, and Belgium) had colonies all over the world. Everywhere a British colony was next to a German colony, there was fighting. The war was fought on several continents because there were colonies on several continents (especially Africa and Asia).

The third reason was that, as you have read, the U.S. became involved.

Trench Warfare and Attrition

The most horrifying thing about the Great War (so called because it was really big, not really cool) was the number of casualties per battle."Soldier in Trench" This was the result of the machine gun and other technologies that were way beyond the military tactics.

In order to prevent ground troops getting mowed down by machine guns (all of which were now located at the front, of course), it was necessary to dig trenches. Then the enemy bombards your trench with artillery to try to get you to retreat. You put barbed wire in front of your trench in case they decide to rush your trench. By now you are living in your trench, with beds dug into the dirt, trench foot from it raining all the time, shell shock from the all-night artillery barrage, and dysentery from the lack of sanitation and clean water.

The enemy uses poison gas in the artillery shells, so you need a gas mask and start lobbing poison gas back at their trenches. They get bi-planes and drop bombs on your trenches; you send up balloons to see if they're still in their trench after your last artillery barrage.

When no one can stand not moving anymore (war is supposed to be about taking territory, after all), the generals send you and your pals "over the top" of the trench, through your own barbed wired, and across the "no man's land" on your way to get to the enemy trench. Although your leaders have been bombarding the enemy trench for days, and believe there is no one left there to man the machine guns, one kid gets to one gun and mows you (and 250 of your comrades) down, and you're dead. Along with millions of others. Welcome to death on the Western Front.

What's happened is that a war of attrition has replaced war for territory. Where before, the point of war was to take and hold land (a hill, a battlefield, a town), the point here becomes to kill as many of the enemy as possible. Attrition means "wearing down"; you try to wear down the ability of the enemy to wage war. Most of the young men of a generation will be lost in this bloodbath.


The war was very upsetting to the Progressives, who wanted to focus on domestic programs. International entanglements violated isolationism, and turned people's focus away from Progressive improvements. Woodrow Wilson had been one of these Progressives, as history professor and governor of New Jersey. I've noticed that most presidents seem to be good at either foreign policy or domestic policy, not both. Wilson was best at domestic policy, but he's the president we had when World War broke out.

When he ran for reelection in 1916, Wilson was the choice if you were against the U.S. entering the war. While his own position was doubtful, the opposing Republican, Charles Evans Hughes, was a "hawk". He wanted the U.S. to get tough on Germany, and definitely wanted to get into the war. So since Wilson claimed he wanted neutrality, people opposing the war had to vote for Wilson.

Some have called Wilson's ideas on neutrality idealistic, or even unrealistic. He believed that the U.S. could remain neutral, and continue trading with both sides. But circumstances made this impossible, since both sides wanted to block our trade with the other, and both used blockades, ship searches, and other violations of neutrality to prevent the other benefiting from U.S. trade. "Submarine"

One of the hottest issues was Germany's use of unrestricted submarine warfare, which Wilson believed violated international law. Ships at sea were required by international law to fly their colors when they saw each other, so that each party could be identified before conflict followed. For a submarine, surfacing to hoist a flag would be suicide. So Germany had declared the area around the British Isles an unrestricted submarine warfare zone, and published the map in newspapers throughout Europe and America. Having defined the region and declaring they would sink any ship that came within it, Germany believed she was obeying international law. Wilson did not.

Wilson's Secretary of State at this time was William Jennings Bryan (yes, the Populist candidate and Cowardly Lion of the 1890s). Bryan was committed to total neutrality even while Wilson leaned in favor of the Allies. Bryan wanted Wilson to forbid American citizens from sailing on ships entering the unrestricted submarine zone, but Wilson refused. When the Lusitania was sunk in 1915, killing some Americans, Bryan urged that Wilson do nothing. But Wilson sent a harsh letter to the German government, condemning the action. Bryan resigned because Wilson was not being truly neutral. The new Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, was a hawk.


You have read that in the U.S., some saw the war as a fight for democracy. "Peace March"The combined causes of the sinking of the Lusitania, the hiring of Lansing, the elimination and then resumption of unrestricted submarine activity, and the Zimmerman note, led the U.S. into war. Wilson saw this as a war to make the world safe for democracy. However, men did not rush to enlist, and Congress had to institute a military draft.

You have read that some Americans opposed the war, and there was a large peace movement in both Europe and America. Socialists in particular felt that the war was both capitalist and imperialist. Rather than being a fight for freedom, socialists believed that it was an imperialistic push for profits. Most of the royal families of Europe were related, at least by marriage, and were in serious competition for trade routes. The U.S. was unable to profit through trade with both sides, since neutrality was continually violated. Thus, the U.S. had to enter the war in order to resume normal trading relations, and preserve profits for American industry. Labor unions in general went along with the war as well. This particularly disgusted the IWW, who were fighting profiteering industrialists to try to gain rights for the workers.

Document: John Reed: Whose War? (1917)

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John Reed, journalist, was an American communist, IWW leader, and women's rights advocate who ultimately went to Russia to cover and assist the Bolshevik Revolution. In this clip from the movie Reds (1981), John Reed (played by Warren Beatty) is asked to speak at a meeting of the Liberal Club in his birthplace of Portland, Oregon. This is during the early years of the war, before the U.S. has entered it. As you can see, the head of the Club is fervently patriotic. Reed responds. After the meeting, local feminist and radical Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton) gets an interview with Reed. She takes him to her studio. She is in fact married, despite what she implies in this scene. Reed states his views on the war.

Socialist protest also focused on the draft, which forced young men to embark on an adventure that could easily cost them their lives. Socialists saw the draft as a violation of democracy, and equated it to the "involuntary servitude" forbidden by the Thirteenth Amendment. Others must have agreed.

The Socialists made major political gains as the U.S. approached the entrance into the war, winning many seats in local and state government. They spoke out against the war, and published pamphlets. Some, like Charles Schenck and Eugene Debs, were arrested under the new Espionage Act (June 1917), an act that was supported by the Supreme Court as being necessary despite its violation of the First Amendment. The Act would be used to dismantle the IWW, and about nine hundred people would go to prison because of it. Anarchist Emma Goldman was one of them; her document is about a rally questioning conscription.

Document: Emma Goldman: Opposing the Conscription of Soldiers audio

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Due to her opposition to the war, Emma Goldman was convicted of anarchism, stripped of her American citizenship and deported in 1919. In this clip from the movie Reds (1981), John Reed says good-bye to Emma Goldman shortly before she is deported. Chase and Sanborn was Goldman's favorite coffee. Louise is Louise Bryant, now Reed's common law wife. Max is Max Eastman, publisher of The Masses magazine.

Also, there is more information about her deportation at The Emma Goldman Papers website.


After the war, Wilson journeyed to Versailles to take part in the peace conference. The conference, held at Versailles to humiliate Germany further (Prussia had dictated terms to France at Versailles after the Franco-Prussian war), was dominated by Wilson, David Lloyd-George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy. Orlando was hardly ever consulted, since he represented a country which had Woodrow Wilson switched sides after the war began (this humiliation will later impact the formation of Mussolini's fascist party). The entire treaty was thus a result of Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd-George, determining all provisions for all countries involved.

Wilson' goals were clear; they had been read to Congress in his Fourteen Points.

Document: Woodrow Wilson: The Fourteen Points (1918)

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Ultimately, Wilson was forced to compromise. His goals were seen as idealistic and unrealistic, and he himself was not much respected. The U.S. had entered the war very late, said most Europeans, why should Americans determine the European peace? Wilson was even accused of acting like Jesus, coming into Paris to gather a following and tell everyone the new, moral way of things. "Postwar Map"

Certainly Wilson's policy was in the tradition of American Progressivism. But the biggest problem was that Clemenceau, leader of the only country on the border with Germany, demanded a harsh punishment for Germany. Ultimately, Lloyd-George went along with this, desiring only to preserve the British Empire and not have to enter another continental war. Wilson, who wanted colonial systems subject to his new League of Nations, got no cooperation on this issue from the other two. In fact, Wilson ended up being forced to compromise almost all of his first thirteen points in order to gain the fourteenth (the League of Nations).

Historians of medicine and biology have even suggested that Wilson should have stood firm, but was hampered by encephalitis caused by the massive flu epidemic that swept Europe and America at this time. The influenza killed more people than died during the war, and Wilson definitely became ill, missing several conference meetings. Evidence suggests that the brain inflamation may have caused Wilson to believe he was being more effective than he actually was.

The upshot was that the League of Nations was agreed upon, but that everything else pretty much was determined by Clemenceau and Lloyd-George. Germany was punished harshly, which many believed led to the humiliation that made guys like Hitler so popular. France and Britain divided up Germany's old colonies in Africa and Asia, and gave a tiny piece of one to Italy. The Ottoman Empire was also divided up into colonies, despite the fact that the British government had promised the Arabs a pan-Arab state if they rebelled against the Ottomans and took Turkey out of the war. The Arabs had indeed unified and knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the war, ably organized by British soldier T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). But at the peace conference, the pan-Arab dream was betrayed, which many feel led to the violence present in that part of the world since 1920.

Wilson's personal enemy and political rival back home, Henry Cabot Lodge, was head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the end, the Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. This meant that the United States did not become a member of Wilson's dream, the League of Nations, undermining its effectiveness throughout its short existence.

Document: The Treaty of Versailles (excerpts) 1919

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Patriotic Music

Even before the war, patriotic music became popular, especially with the works of George M. Cohan. The Oxford Companion to Popular Music (bet you were wondering where I get all this stuff) describes Cohan as possessing "typical American vigour, virtuosity, brashness, and patriotic naïveté". He wrote unabashedly patriotic music for vaudeville shows people would later describe as corny. He was an obvious choice for popular music during the WWI years.


"Grand Old Flag" was written in 1906:

You're a grand old flag,
You're a high-flying flag,
And forever in peace may you wave,
You're the emblem of the land I love,
The home of the free and the brave.
Every heart beats true for the red, white and blue,
Where there's never a boast or brag.
Should auld aquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag!

"War Songs"

Cohan wrote "Over There" in 1917.

Johnnie, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun,
Take it on the run, on the run, on the run,
Hear them calling you and me, ev'ry son of liberty
Hurry right away, no delay, go today
Make your Daddy glad to have had such a lad,
Tell your sweetheart not to pine, to be proud her boy's in line
Over there, over there!
Send the word, send the word, over there!
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming,
The drums rum-tumming ev'rywhere!
So prepare, say a prayer, send the word, send the word to beware!
We'll be over, we're coming over,
And we won't come back 'til it's over Over There!
Johnnie, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun,
Johnnie show the Hun you're a son of a gun!
Hoist the flag and let her fly,
Yankee Doodle do or die
Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit
Yankees to the ranks from the towns and the tanks
Make your mother proud of you and the old Red White and Blue
Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word, over there!
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming,
The drums rum-tumming ev'ry where
So prepare, say a prayer, send the word, send the word to beware
We'll be over, we're coming over,
And we won't come back 'til it's over Over There!

"War Songs"

Another popular composer, Irving Berlin, wrote "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" in 1918. Note how both the songs here are positive and upbeat. "Uncle Sam Poster"

Oh how I hate to get up in the morning
Oh how I love to remain in bed.
For the heart is full of woe,
Just to hear the bugle call,
You got to get up, you got to get up,
You got to get up this morning.

Some day I'm going to murder the bugler,
Some day they're going to find him dead.
I'll amputate his revelie,
And step upon it heavily,
And spend the rest of my life in bed.

You got to get up, you got to get up,
You got to get up this morning.....

Oh for the minute the battle is over,
Oh for the minute the foe is dead.
I put my uniform away,
I move to Phil-a-del-phia,
And spend the rest of my life in bed.
And spend the rest of my life in bed!

There were also several popular anti-war songs, including "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier". This is an original recording from the Library of Congress.

I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier (1915)
"Caskets of the Dead"

Ten millions soldiers to the war have gone
Who may never return again.
Ten million mothers' hearts must break
For the ones who died in vain.
Head bowed down in sorrow, in her lonely years,
I hear a mother murmer thro' her tears:

"I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier
I brought him up to be my pride and joy.
Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder
To shoot some other mother's darling boy?
Let nations arbitrate their future trouble.
It's time to lay the sword and gun away.
There'd be no war today if mothers all would say
I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier."

What victory can cheer a mother's heart
When she looks at her blighted home?
What victory can bring her back
All she cares to call her own?
Let each mother's answer in the years to be,
"Remember that my boy belongs to me."

Jeannette Rankin

Many historians seem interested in promoting World War I as something everyone supported, but it just wasn't so. The first woman in the House of Representatives, Jeannette Rankin, did not respond to the first roll call on the declaration of war. When told by a colleague that she should vote because her vote represented the women of America, she stood and said "I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no."

I have created a slide show about this extraordinary woman.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.