The Chronological Markers of the First World War

French school system: History, 3rd and 1st • Canadian grade level: Grades 9 to 12

Introduction

The chronology of the First World War is traditionally limited to the period starting with the declarations of war by the principal belligerent countries and ending with the armistice between France and Germany that lasted until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

In fact, precise dating of the beginning and the end of the conflict is much more complicated than it appears. Indeed, when placed in a broader context from the point of view of both events and geography, the chronology of the war should actually span from the formation of the main European alliances at the end of the 19th century, through the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the crises between the European countries over the possession of colonies, and the Balkan Wars of 1912, until the last of the Greco-Turkish wars and the signing of the peace treaties of Sèvres in 1920 and that of Lausanne in 1923.

Did the First World War really begin in the summer of 1914?

The year 1914 was not actually the beginning of it all. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and its consequences were factors that triggered the war in Europe, but they were also part of a series of conflicts and deep crises that would lengthen the timeline of the First World War. From the perspective of the history of international relations, the roots of the Great War were visible at least as early as the first years of the 20th century, with the heightening of tensions between countries, particularly in Europe, together with the strengthening of military alliances. The antagonism between France and Germany that had existed since 1870 reached its height between 1905 and 1911, the years of the two Moroccan crises. The two countries were competing for the possession of the North African country, which eventually became a joint French-Spanish protectorate, to the detriment of Germany.

“À qui le Maroc?”, 1906 postcard illustrated by Assus. Morocco is on the camel pursued by the French, Germans, and British.
For use in class only.

Further indicators of and factors in the increased tensions included the naval rivalry between London and Berlin and the appearance of coalitions such as the Pan-German League, developments that had arisen in the context of Germany’s imperialistic Weltpolitik, adopted at the end of the 19th century at the urging of Wilhelm II and nourished by the Kaiser’s fear that Germany would be encircled by hostile neighbours. Germany was also involved in the race to build up colonial empires.

Canada was not immune to pressures to help the mother country in its escalating naval rivalry with Germany. The Liberal government opted to create a Canadian navy that would collaborate with the Royal Navy when needed. This plan had barely been announced when the party lost power to the Conservatives in the federal election of 1911. The new party in office proposed a contribution of 35 million dollars to reinforce the British Navy, but this was voted down by a Liberal-dominated Senate. Thus, in 1914, Canada did not have a naval force worthy of the name, nor was it able to boost the budget of the Royal Navy.  The matter was further complicated by Henri Bourassa’s insistence that a national navy be under domestic command; this Quebec politician had created a podium for his ideas by founding the Montreal French-language daily, Le Devoir. From the North American point of view, the crisis of 1914 was more of a concrete manifestation of European tensions that were already at a flashpoint.

Contemporary historical studies have emphasized the complexity, as well as the subjective aspect, of attempts to establish a chronological framework for the First World War. American historian David Bell, among others, has placed its origins as early as the beginning of the 19th century.  Historians generally agree, however, that the Crimean War of 1853–1856 was the first example of industrial warfare, establishing an inexorable tendency. It was followed by the American Civil War of the 1860s, the Franco-Prussian War a decade later, the Boer Wars at the turn of the century, the Russo-Japanese War of 1905,  and finally, the Balkan Wars were already underway in 1912.

Hannosuke Kuroki, Japanese and Russian cavalry troops clash near Chonju, Korea, 1904.
Chromolithograph, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC (LC-DIG-jpd-02521).

A flexible chronology that should be recalibrated in a global context

Furthermore, the chronology of the First World War also depends on the engagements and withdrawals of the respective belligerents. Broadening our scope, we see that the “world” did not enter the war simultaneously in August 1914. Several countries only joined the conflict the following year and even later, and some stopped fighting before, or after, 1918.

Italy, after negotiating the London Pact, only joined in on the side of the Triple Entente on May 23, 1915. Bulgaria, a neutral country whose support had been solicited by both camps, threw in its lot with the Central Powers (Germany and its allies) in October 1915. Portugal entered the war on the side of the Entente in March 1916, wishing to strengthen its position in Europe and keep its African colonies, territories coveted by Germany. Romania, claiming control over Transylvania, declared war on Germany in August 1916, following the victorious Russian counter-offensive on the Eastern Front that raised the possibility of an Austro-Hungarian defeat. Greece, until then a neutral country, joined the Entente in November 1916, by declaring war on Bulgaria, and on Germany, in June 1917. Finally, the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, although its troops only began landing in France in October 1917.

Similarly, Brazil abandoned its neutral status and entered the war when a German submarine sunk a Brazilian ship, the Paraná, off Cape Barfleur on the Normandy coast.

Declarations of war must also be put into perspective by considering the involvement of colonies, which varied from one region of the world to the other. Canada, although reserving the prerogative of deciding the manner in which it would participate, entered the war at the same time as Great Britain.

Did the First World War really end on November 11, 1918?

This second question is even more difficult to answer. The situation on that date was also more complicated than it appeared, and generalizations on a global level are misleading.

Russia, for example, signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1917, having effectively withdrawn from the conflict since the 1917 Revolution. In the Middle East, the Armistice of Mudros ended hostilities on October 31, 1918; and it was on November 3 of that same year that the Armistice of Villa Giusti was signed by the chiefs of staff of Italy and those of Austria-Hungary, whose empire had just been dismantled.

On the other hand, the Balkan Wars, which began in 1912, only stopped well after the First World with a Greco-Turkish armistice which was included in the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923. This treaty, moreover, while marking the final demise of the Ottoman Empire, did not bring about an end to conflict in the Middle East.

Thus, amidst the armistices and peace treaties signed between 1918 and 1923, it is not easy to establish a precise, universally applicable date for the end of the First World War.

The term “21-year armistice” is sometimes applied to the inter-war period. In hindsight, we see that the resolution of the First World War only brought ephemeral peace and the Second World War developed largely as a logical continuation of the First.

In any case, we can conclude that it is impossible to clearly define beginning and end points for the Great War on a worldwide scale.

Notes

Bibliography / Webography

  • Bell David A., The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. x + 420 pp.
  • Bernier Serge, Le Patrimoine militaire canadien. D’hier à aujourd’hui, Vol. III, 1872–2000, pp. 82–89. Art Global, 2000. Accessible at: www.cmhg-phmc.gc.ca
© Réseau Canopé, 2015