WWI Centennial: An Overview

Frank Hurley/Getty Images
Frank Hurley/Getty Images

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. For the last six years we’ve been covering the causes and major events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. All the entries in the WWI Centennial blog are available in reverse chronological order, along with other stories about the war, here.

With the final climactic year underway, we’re also providing a (relatively) condensed version so new readers can catch up and long-time readers can refresh their memories.

1914: THE CONFLICT BEGINS

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb nationalists in Sarajevo, the leaders of the ailing Austro-Hungarian Empire decided to use the murder of the heir to the throne as a pretext to crush their troublesome neighbor, the Kingdom of Serbia, once and for all. With support from their powerful ally Germany, they delivered an ultimatum to Serbia with demands so outrageous it was guaranteed to be rejected, giving them an excuse to declare war.

But Germany and Austria-Hungary’s clumsy efforts to “localize” the conflict went off the rails in the “July Crisis.” After Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, on July 30 Serbia’s Slavic patron Russia mobilized against Austria-Hungary and Germany. On August 1 Germany declared war on Russia and its ally France, and on August 4 Britain declared war on Germany after German troops violated Belgian neutrality as part of the Schlieffen Plan.

As war rippled across the planet, fighting defied expectations on both sides. France’s attempt to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine ended in bloody defeat during the Battle of the Frontiers, while the Germans overcame the odds to destroy the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg, and Austria-Hungary suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Serbs at Kolubara. In September Germany’s invasion of northern France failed decisively at the “Miracle on the Marne,” and the exhausted Germans retreated north and dug in, marking the emergence of trench warfare.

The opposing armies now tried to outflank each other again and again, without success, in the “Race to the Sea,” leaving parallel lines of trenches behind them, eventually reaching the North Sea in Flanders in western Belgium. Here the Germans made one last push to break through the Allied lines at Ypres (fated to be the scene of two more titanic battles in the years to come). As 1914 drew to a close, the horrific casualties shocked the world, and the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers in November just spread the bloody stalemate further.  However there was a brief moment of good cheer with the famous Christmas Eve Truce.

Erik Sass

1915: GALLIPOLI AND THE GREAT RETREAT

The following year was marked by more disappointments and surprises. Frustrated on the Western Front, Britain and France tried, and failed, to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war with a long shot attempt to “force” the Turkish straits with warships, followed by amphibious landings, resulting in an even worse defeat at Gallipoli.

Although the Turks held off the Allied attacks, the threat to the Turkish homeland, along with the fact that some Armenian Christians were helping their Russian co-religionists invade the empire, prompted the Ottoman “Young Turk” triumvirate to unleash the Armenian Genocide, killing around 1.5 million by 1917. At the same time, after a year of heated debate Italy—thinking Gallipoli was going to be a big Allied victory—finally joined the Allies with a declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, but immediately became bogged down in trench warfare as well.

In spring 1915 Germany outraged public opinion with two brutal new weapons: poison gas and submarine warfare. The German Fourth Army unleashed chlorine gas on Allied forces at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, causing horrific casualties but ultimately failing to achieve a breakthrough, thanks to the bravery of Canadian troops; This set the pattern for the rest of the war, as both sides used poison gas to amplify the effects of artillery bombardments on enemy trenches—with terrible but rarely decisive effects.

Meanwhile Germany’s decision to mount unrestricted U-boat warfare brought her to the brink of war with the United States, the world’s most powerful neutral nation. The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 infuriated the American public and pushed the U.S. towards the Allies (although there was also anger at the Allied blockade of the Central Powers, which hurt U.S. business interests). The Germans backed down, but remained determined to cut the Allies off from American industry, the key to sustaining the Allied war effort.

The summer of 1915 brought the first major breakthrough of the war on the Eastern Front, with the Central Powers’ rapid conquest of Russian Poland during the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign. The Russian Great Retreat, as it came to be known, was a huge setback, prompting Tsar Nicholas II to take over personal command of the Russian Army—meaning he would be held responsible for future defeats. And worse was to come for the Allies: in October 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers and helped crush Serbia. The remnants of the Serbian Army managed to escape through Albania, and were subsequently evacuated by Allied ships to the island of Corfu. Eventually the Serbian Army was redeployed in Salonika in northern Greece, reinforcing Allied troops recently evacuated from Gallipoli in a belated effort to help Serbia from the south.

Erik Sass

1916: CATASTROPHIC CASUALTIES

Some of the biggest battles in human history occurred in Europe the following year, beginning with the incredible German onslaught at Verdun in February 1916. A cold-blooded German plan to “bleed France dry” through simple attrition, Verdun soon spun out of control, resulting in almost as many casualties for the Germans as the French. The failure led to the firing of chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, replaced in September 1916 by Paul von Hindenburg (aided by his chief strategist, Erich Ludendorff).

In June 1916 the Russians launched their most successful offensive of the war by far, orchestrated by General Alexei Brusilov, a pioneer of “combined arms,” in which attacks by artillery, infantry and airplanes were carefully coordinated to punch holes in widely separated portions of the enemy front at once. The Brusilov Offensive, as it became known, resulted in the almost total collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies in Galicia by September 1916, forcing Germany to withdraw troops from other parts of the front to prop up its beleaguered ally, at which point the Russian offensive sputtered.

The summer of 1916 was a grim time for the Central Powers, as the British also launched their biggest offensive of the war to date at the Somme. The Allies inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans but also suffered breathtaking losses, with 57,470 British casualties including 19,240 dead on the first day alone (July 1, 1916). In the weeks to come the British scored more victories, pushing the enemy back again and again, but the Germans were always able to dig into new defensive positions; the battlefield debut of tanks in September 1916 spread terror in the German ranks but failed to provide a decisive advantage.

In another case of bad timing, in August 1916 Romania—encouraged by Russian success in the Brusilov Offensive and the British advance at the Somme—joined the Allies in hopes of conquering Austria-Hungary’s ethnic Romanian provinces. However this soon proved a disastrous mistake, as Germany rushed more reinforcements to the Balkans and swiftly crushed the Romanians with help from the Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians and Turks, occupying Bucharest by winter.

Erik Sass

1917: THE U.S. ENTERS THE WAR

The fourth year of the war started and ended with upheaval. Leading the way was the Russian Revolution in March 1917, when workers and soldiers overthrew the Romanov Dynasty and seized power on behalf of the Duma, or parliament. However the new Provisional Government was always weak, forced to share power with the Petrograd Soviet, a socialist assembly representing soldiers and workers, and leftist radicals in the Soviet, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks, wanted to overthrow the Provisional Government too.

The radicals got a boost with the failure of the disastrous offensive ordered by War Minister Alexander Kerensky in July, followed by an abortive military coup led by a conservative general, Kornilov, which undermined popular support for the new regime. After their own failed coup attempt in July, the Bolsheviks finally succeeded in overthrowing the Provisional Government in November, supposedly seizing power on behalf of the socialist Soviets—but in reality for themselves. The Bolsheviks would soon take Russia out of the war, a huge setback for the Allies.

This wasn’t their only problem. In March 1917 the Germans made a surprise withdrawal to formidable new defenses on the Western Front, known as the Hindenburg Line, in order to shorten their line and free up forces to fight elsewhere. Following the bloody defeat of the French spring offensive on the Western Front, half the French Army mutinied in May 1917, paralyzing the French war effort. Although General Philippe Petain, the hero of Verdun, set about improving conditions and restoring order, it would take months before the French Army was able to mount a major offensive. To take the pressure off their weakened ally, the British launched a gigantic offensive at the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, which achieved some gains, but again ultimately failed to break through the German lines. The stunning Italian defeat at Caporetto then forced the British to halt the offensive to reinforce the Italian front.

Fortunately for Britain and France, an even bigger ally was rumbling into action. Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare in February 1917, followed by the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram, in which the Germans secretly encouraged Mexico to declare war on the U.S., outraged American public opinion so much that President Woodrow Wilson got Congress to declare war on Germany on April 4, 1917. But it would take time for the U.S. to build an army big enough to make a difference in Europe.

Erik Sass

After the Bolsheviks agreed to an armistice in December, Russia’s exit from the war and descent into civil war spelled bad news for the Allies. As 1917 drew to a close, the big question was whether the Germans would be able to transfer troops from the Eastern Front and crush the overstretched British and French before American troops started arriving in large numbers? This was the final race that would decide the outcome of the war.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

12 Facts About the End of World War II

American servicemen and women in Paris celebrate on V-J Day, marking the end of World War II.
American servicemen and women in Paris celebrate on V-J Day, marking the end of World War II.
Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On August 14, 1945, President Harry S. Truman announced the Japanese government had surrendered, a decision that would bring World War II to a close. Emperor Hirohito of Japan informed his own citizens on August 15, yet there was still work to be done. The written agreement that formalized the surrender wasn’t signed until September 2 of that year at a gathering aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Communities around the globe have celebrated August 14, August 15, or September 2 as Victory Over Japan Day, or V-J Day for short. Here are a dozen facts about the surrender 75 years ago this summer and the events that led up to it.

1. The Battle of Okinawa marked the last major battle in World War II.

Over 60,000 American soldiers and marines arrived at the shores of Okinawa on April 1, 1945. The island south of Kyushu formed a logical gateway for an invasion of Japan, and U.S. troops were prepared for a fight. Eighty-one days of incredibly savage combat by air, sea, and land followed, hampered by dense forest and volcanic crags. The Allies emerged victorious, but 12,000 Americans were killed in the effort. Japan’s forces lost around 90,000 troops, and 100,000 civilians also died in the battle.

2. Before V-J Day, V-E Day—Victory in Europe Day—fell on Truman’s 61st birthday.

Sworn into office on April 12, 1945, following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman got to share an exciting piece of news early in his term. The Allies formally accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8—President Truman’s birthday. “Our victory is but half won,” Truman said. Though the violence in Europe had ended, things were coming to a head in the Pacific theatre.

3. To end World War II, the U.S. made a strategic decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of other Japanese cities.

An atomic bomb had been successfully tested in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. By deploying nuclear weapons against Japan, Truman and his advisors hoped to force an unconditional surrender—and avoid the need for a full-scale U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland.

For maximum impact, it was decided the ideal targets would be cities that had suffered little damage from earlier bombings. Because of its cultural significance as Japan’s former capital, Kyoto was taken off the list. The target committee opted to focus on other cities with significant military headquarters and industrial centers. Hiroshima stood as a major base of operations in the Japanese defense effort. Nagasaki was one of the country’s key seaports. Both places were wartime manufacturing hubs.

4. The USS Indianapolis's secret mission ended in the worst naval disaster of World War II.

Components of the 9700-pound nuclear fission bomb nicknamed Little Boy, destined to be dropped over Hiroshima, were delivered in secret to an American air base in the Northern Mariana Islands by the USS Indianapolis. After dropping off the materials, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by Japanese submarine and quickly sunk just after midnight on July 30, 1945.

Around 300 crew members immediately went down with the ship. The remaining 900 men floated at the surface, awaiting rescue. They endured dehydration and hunger, hallucinations, salt poisoning, and frequent, vicious shark attacks. By the time rescue came on August 2, there were only 317 survivors.

On August 19, 2017, a research team led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen located the wreckage of the Indianapolis on the bottom of the Philippine Sea, 3.4 miles below the surface.

5. The number of victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still unknown.

At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, Little Boy exploded over Hiroshima. The blast's yield was equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. “What I felt at that moment was that Hiroshima was entirely covered with only three colors. I remember red, black, and brown … but nothing else,” recalled Akiko Takakura, an eyewitness who was then 20 years old. In minutes, dark smoke climbed nearly 4000 feet into the air. More than 90 percent of the city’s structures were damaged or destroyed.

Nagasaki was hit with an implosion-type plutonium bomb (called Fat Man) three days later. The blast’s effects—equaling 21,000 tons of TNT—were felt over an area of 43 square miles.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “No one will ever know for certain how many died as a result of the attack on Hiroshima.” The same goes for Nagasaki. Patchy census records, the obliteration of government buildings, and other factors make it impossible to get at exact figures. The initial blasts are estimated to have killed 70,000 in Hiroshima and 40,000 in Nagasaki, not including those who later died of radiation poisoning or other injuries.

6. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan less than a month before World War II ended.

At the Allies' Tehran Conference in November 1943, the Soviet Union had agreed to declare war on Japan three months after Germany's surrender to force an end to World War II while retaking occupied territory from Japan. That day came on August 8, 1945. About 1.6 million Soviet troops were swiftly dispatched to Japanese-occupied Manchuria (modern-day northeastern China). The USSR inflicted heavy losses during their engagements with Japanese forces in China, Korea, and the Kuril Islands.

7. Japan formally surrendered aboard the USS Missouri, ending World War II.

A crowd celebrates V-J Day and the end of World War II in Times Square.Dick DeMarsico, World-Telegram, Library of Congress // No Known Copyright Restriction

On August 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allies. The news rocketed around the world, launching joyous celebrations, parades, and patriotic displays to mark V-J Day. On September 2, aboard the USS Missouri, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and General Yoshijiro Umezu signed the official Instrument of Surrender document crafted by the U.S. War Department. Also present was General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied powers.

“It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past,” MacArthur told the gathered crowd. The USS Missouri would go on to participate in both the Korean and Persian Gulf Wars before it was decommissioned for the last time on March 31, 1992.

8. The pair in the iconic Times Square kiss photo, taken on V-J-Day, didn’t know each other.

Titled “V-J Day in Times Square,” the picture was snapped by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine. Since Eisenstaedt didn’t write down the couple's names, their identities were a mystery for decades. Then Lawrence Verria’s 2012 book The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II seemed to put the matter to rest: It pegged George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman as the couple.

Except they weren’t a couple at all. Mendonsa was a sailor on a date with his future wife at the time. Upon hearing the news of Japan’s surrender, he excitedly grabbed Friedman—a dentist’s assistant he didn’t know—and planted a kiss on her lips. Unfortunately, Friedman wasn't into it. “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed,” she later said. “The guy just came over and grabbed!”

9. Frustrated soldiers in the Pacific theatre waited months to return home.

The United States couldn’t immediately bring all of its soldiers home once the Axis Powers surrendered. And that created plenty of tension overseas. Rep. Clare Boothe Luce, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Connecticut, said on September 17, 1945 that every congressperson was “under constant and terrific pressure from the servicemen and their families” who wanted swift discharges.

Servicemembers stationed in Japan and the Far East began stamping the phrase “No Boats, No Votes” onto their homebound letters—indicating that if they didn't get picked up soon, leaders would hear about it in the following year’s congressional elections. Four thousand homesick troops held a mass protest in Manila on Christmas Day. Similar demonstrations took place in London, Paris, and Frankfurt.

10. The last World War II Japanese internment camp in the United States closed in 1946.

Around 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned in internment camps across seven U.S. states beginning in 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the detention of Japanese-Americans regardless of citizenship status or loyalty to ensure "every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage" following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The last of these camps, located in northern California, stayed open until March 20, 1946.

11. Some Japanese soldiers kept fighting long after the end of World War II.

Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was 23 years old when he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines on December 26, 1944. He and three enlisted men would remain there years after the war ended. Disbelieving reports of Japan’s defeat, the soldiers regularly fought with islanders they mistook for enemy combatants. One of Onoda’s comrades surrendered in 1950 and by 1972, police officers had shot the other two.

Lieutenant Onoda didn’t give up until after he was rediscovered by a Japanese traveler in 1974. A delegation including one of Onoda’s former commanding officers came to Lubang later that year to accept his surrender.

Two additional holdouts, Shoichi Yokoi and Teruo Nakamura, remained hidden elsewhere in the former Pacific theatre until 1972 and 1974, respectively.

12. Only one state officially celebrates the end of World War II.

Rhode Island is the only state in the union that celebrates the end of World War II as an annual legal holiday. Victory Day falls on the second Monday of August.