The First World War experienced a war that, though based in Europe, had a far-reaching collective influence on the world as a whole. In this article, the different causes and effects of WWI will be addressed using four primary sources. The causes for WWI were- 1) Imperialism- Conflict between Imperialist countries between old imperialist countries like Britain and France, and new imperialist ambition of Germany, the German railway line from Berlin to Baghdad; 2) Ultra Nationalism in the form of Pan Slav movement in Russian, Polish, Czech, Serb, Bulgaria, and Greek and Pan-German movement; 3) Military Alliance in the form of Triple Alliance/ Central Powers (1882) – Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary and Triple Entente/ Allies (1907) – Britain, France, Russia. These alliances were reorganised and expanded as more nations entered the war: Italy, Japan and the United States joined the Allies, while the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers; 4) International Anarchy due to secret agreement between Britain and France allowing Britain to control Egypt and France to take over Morocco. Germany opposed, but settled with a part of French Congo; 5) Balkan Wars- Balkan nations of Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece and Montenegro which were under the control of Turkey defeated it in the First Balkan War. The subsequent war was between the Balkan countries themselves and defeated countries like Turkey and Bulgaria sought German help; 5) Immediate Cause was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip. This assassination led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. When Russia began to mobilize due to its alliance with Serbia, Germany declared war on Russia. Thus began the expansion of the war to include all those involved in the mutual defense alliances.
Lenin in his work of Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and Winks and Adams in their work Europe, 1890-1945- the crisis and conflict, extensively discussed about the causes of WWI and accorded different main causes. The outcome and consequence part of WWI was discussed in John Keegan’s work dealing with Somme battle in his work of- The face of battle and in Erich Maria Remarque’s work- All Quiet on the Western Front.
According to Lenin, imperialism is a general factor striving towards violence and reaction. The characteristic feature of imperialism is not industrial but finance capital. The characteristic feature of imperialism is precisely that it strives to annex not only agrarian territories, but even most highly industrialized regions which can substantiated with example of German appetite for Belgium and French appetite for Lorraine. (Lenin). Another such essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between several great powers in the striving for hegemony, i.e., for the conquest of territory, not so much directly for themselves as to weaken the adversary and undermine his hegemony, for example, Belgium became particularly important for Germany as a base for operations against Britain and Britain needed Baghdad as a base for operations against Germany. (Lenin). Imperialism originated from monopoly in economy and became a stage for aggressive capitalism which seemingly led to the imperialist countries into conflict and subsequently into WWI.
Winks and Adams comprehensively discussed the conflicts of Europe during the period of 1890 to 1945 with starting of the book with Chapter on the modernization of nations which focused toward the condition of the European nation-state; the ferment of new political ideas; the prospect of a radical reordering of the great powers; competition among European states for colonial dominion over non-European people; navalism and the arms race; and the incendiary potential of the ailing Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. (Robin W. Winks and R. J. Q. Adams).
The paramount theme of All Quiet on the Western Front was the terrible brutality of war and it tended to demolish the romanticization of war with emphasizing ideas such as glory, honor, patriotic duty, and adventure. The narrator of the book was Paul Bäumer, a young man of nineteen who fights in the German army on the French front in World War I after getting inspired by the stirring patriotic speeches of their teacher, Kantorek. (Remarque). But after experiencing ten weeks of brutal training at the hands of the petty, cruel Corporal Himmelstoss and the unimaginable brutality of life on the front, Paul and his friends realize that the ideals of nationalism and patriotism for which they enlisted are simply empty clichés and no longer believe that war is glorious or honorable, and they live in constant physical terror. (Remarque). Remarque’s novel portrays the mind-numbing terror and savagery of war with a relentless focus on the physical and psychological damage that it occasions with its end marking the death of about every major character of the novel and hence, epitomizing the war’s devastating effect on the young generation of men who were forced to fight it. Remarque illustrates that soldiers on the front fight not for the glory of their nation but rather for their own survival; they kill to keep from being killed. The most significant observation of the soldier’s psyche was that Paul and his friends did not consider the opposing armies to be their real enemies, as in their view, their real enemies were the men in power in their own nation, who they believed have sacrificed them to the war simply to increase their own power and glory. (Remarque) In many ways, the precipitating cause of World War I was the ethic of nationalism, the idea that competing nation-states were a fundamental part of existence and that one owed one’s first loyalty to one’s nation, and that one’s national identity was the primary component of one’s overall identity. (Remarque). Kemmerich’s high, supple boots serve as a constant symbol that a pair of good boots is more durable than human life during war time as the boots gets passed from soldier to soldier as each owner dies in sequence. The boots also symbolize the necessary pragmatism that a soldier must have. One cannot yield to one’s emotions amid the devastation of the war; rather, one must block out grief and despair like a machine. (Remarque).
John Keegan in The face of Battle studied the battle of Somme battlefield in the First World War, British territory. The first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916, in northern France, was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army and one of the most infamous days of World War One as the British forces suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 fatalities with just a gain of three square miles of territory. The battle at the Somme started with a weeklong artillery bombardment of the German lines. 1,738,000 shells were fired at the Germans. The logic behind this was so that the artillery guns would destroy the German trenches and barbed wire placed in front of the trenches. There were only three sorts of encounter possible on the field of the Somme: artillery versus artillery, artillery versus infantry; and infantry versus infantry — though if we treat machine-gunners as a separate category, we also get infantry versus machine-gunners and artillery versus machine-gunners. (Keegen). Even though the first day of the Somme had not been a complete military failure, it marked itself as a human tragedy. The most disastrous consequence of Somme Offensive was the involvement of untrained young Germans of Ersatz Corps of German university and high-school students who had paid the price of going untrained to war in the Kindermord (massacre of the innocents) at Ypres in October and November 1914. (Keegen). The Kindermord, had the Kitchener soldiers grasped its import, offered them an awful warning, for the Ersatz Corps, which outnumbered the tiny B.E.F. of 1914, had been beaten by the superior military technique of war-hardened soldiers. (Keegen). The Kitchener battalions had on formation, and for many months afterwards, no knowledge of military technique whatsoever. (Keegen). The most important reason of human tragedy involved in Somme Offensive was the ignorance of what was happening which prevailed almost everywhere on the British side of no-man’s-land throughout the soldiers and their commander chiefs were ill-prepared for the ongoing attack.
The only groups of people who benefitted temporary or permanently benefited from the war were the industrialists of involved nations as well as the national leaders of the involved countries. According to Lenin, the French and the British millionaires involved in railways were the beneficiaries of the imperialism as the concentration of the ownership of these railways amounted to the concentration of finance capital. In Keegen’s Somme offensive study, there was no beneficiary from the outcome of this aggression as it was a human tragedy which amounted to deaths and casualities on both fronts. In Remarque’s novel, the temporary beneficiary were the nationalist leaders and people like Corporal Himmelstoss and Kantorek who preached and instilled patriotic values within the young population of Germany.
All of the above sources are in consonance with the point that the groups of people who lost out in the First World War were young common masses who were misled into joining the forces the forces of their national armies on the pretext of glorified patriotism and nationalism. In Lenin’s work, the people who were defeated by the imperialist policies of the competing countries were the people of their colonies who were not only able to utilize its own resources but also were fighting for the countries which ruled oppressively in the colonies. In Remarque’s work, the plight of Paul and their friends brought out the gory and horror involved in war which reduces life of a human being to mere animal existence and the realization that the soldiers of opposite front are not the real enemies rather the power seeking national leaders serve as the actual enemy of their citizens. In Keegen’s Somme offensive analysis, the price of ignorance of the authorities served as a humongous disaster which resulted in human tragedy on both British and German fronts. It also illustrated upon the catastrophe of involving young untrained German students, Kindermord (massacre of the innocents) in the war, who got crushed massively by the more experienced and trained soldiers. Hence, it can be concluded that not only some groups of people but whole of humanity suffered and lost itself in the First World War and only a few people such as rich industrialists supplying arms and transportations remained unscathed from the brutalities of the war.
Word Count: 1731/1777
Keegen, John. The Face of Battle. 1976.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. 1917.
Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. 1929.
Robin W. Winks and R. J. Q. Adams. Europe, 1890-1945: Crisis and Conflict. 2003.