There are many causes that led to the First World War, but the assassination of the monarch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Archduke Franz Ferdinand) acted as a trigger in destabilizing what was then a delicate state of European political balance. A combination of unfortunate timing of the assassination alongside the growing internal tension among European powers gave vent in the form of a war on a massive scale. Alongside these factors, the rise of nationalistic fervor in some European nations, with the attendant tendencies toward imperialism and militarism had made the outbreak of the war inevitable. (Stubbs, 2002)
The rise of Pan-Slavism, which is a form of ethno-nationalism, in Eastern European countries had also precipitated the war. The strong diplomatic, economic and strategic interests in neighboring countries induced a cascade effect in terms of drawing reluctant participants to the war. The Great War was characterized by the long periods spent by the armed forces in “trenches”, so much so that the war is often described as trench warfare. This not only indicates the lack of sophistication in the art of war at the time but also the “stagnant” nature of this type of warfare. The recorded duration of the First war was close to five years, ranging from 1914 to 1919, most of this time was spent in combats that have reached a state of “stalemate”. (Kiesling, 2005)
The First World War, also referred to as the Great War due to its sweeping scale, would shake-up then existing power equations within Europe and set up the region for the Second World War two decades later. While America’s participation in the latter war was more substantial, it nevertheless played a crucial supportive role to its conventional allies in the former too. America’s support to the French cause would prove to be a major factor in the eventual outcome of the war. (Robert Bruce’s book titled The Fraternity of Arms: America and France in the Great War traces this alliance and places it in the historical, political, ideological and imperialist contexts.) While Britain was witnessing a period of unprecedented prosperity and power during the beginning of the twentieth century and its connection to the United States goes two centuries further back, it was the alliance with France which was strategically important in the context of the Great War. This assessment goes against the grain of popular history, but nevertheless true. For example, the shared ideological basis of the two countries goes back to the Declaration of Independence on July the fourth, 1776. The installation of the Statue of Liberty in Ellis Island, off the banks of New York, as well as the adoption of the democratic ideals of ‘Equality, Fraternity and Liberty’ into the American constitution are enduring symbols of this shared heritage. (Bruce, 2003)
It is for the aforementioned commonalities that American public were in unison with their elected representatives’ decision to join the war. At the beginning of the Great War, most of the American public was aloof to events on the other side of the Atlantic. This stands to reason, for there was no direct threat to American sovereignty and vested interests. Also, as the American demography was composed of various European ethnicities, joining ranks with one side might prove costly in domestic politics. But eventually, the shared ideological underpinnings between the United States, France and Britain proved to be an important factor in turning around public opinion in a quick time. (Kiesling, 2005)
During the early months of 1918 the amalgamation controversy assumed its peak and it became uncertain whether Britain would receive any American help at all. But the ultimate victory for the Western powers was made possible due to their superior cohesion and coordination – something which their enemies could not achieve. So, despite America’s Navy being very weak, its supply of troops to the Western cause was a decisive factor. And their successful integration under British and French command had what made it possible. (Coetzee, 1995)
In 1919, at the end of the Great War, leaders from the coalition of England, France, Italy and the United States decided that they need a treaty to set right the damages caused by Germany and its allies. The treaty would be based on Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Point plan that was proposed in order to bring lasting peace to Europe. The culmination of these discussions and negotiations was the treaty signed by all participant countries in the French city of Versailles. While closing a curtain over the most brutal war till then, the Treaty of Versailles sowed the seeds for a bloodier war two decades later (Barnhart, 2002).
The Treaty of Versailles continues to be regarded to this day by scholars and laymen alike as a highly vindictive and humiliating peace agreement, imposed on a protesting, helpless and a weakened German nation. Assigning complete responsibility for the war on German actions alone is found to be incorrect by historians. Its punitive economic terms coupled with extensive territorial losses, especially in the East, only served to arouse in the German people an enduring bitterness against the Treaty and a fierce sense of nationalism that paved the way for National Socialism (Nazi) and for the outbreak of a second major war within 20 years.
Wilson had mooted and implemented the League of Nations (LoN) after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. He intended the LoN to serve as a neutral arbitraging/peacekeeping organization for the international community. But despite the noble foundations for the League, it would ultimately prove ineffective in preventing the Second World War and became defunct by 1945. (Barnhart, 2002)
Barnhart, M A (June 2002). From Versailles to Pearl Harbor: The Origins of the Second World War in Europe and Asia., The English Historical Review, 117, 472., p.758(2).
Bruce, Robert, A Fraterntiy of Arms: America and France in the Great War, published by University Press of Kansas, 2003
Coetzee, Frans and Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee, eds. Authority, Identity and the Social History of the Great War. Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 1995.
Kiesling, Eugenia C. “Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?.” Parameters 35, no. 2 (2005): 148+.
Stubbs, Kevin D. Race to the Front: The Materiel Foundations of Coalition Strategy in the Great War. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002