The Consequences of the First World War

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


A century after the First World War, history,  literature,  and film  are bringing new perspectives to concepts of this violent confrontation and its consequences.

After presenting a tally of the war’s destructive effects while taking account of the evolving historiography on the subject, we will examine the objectives of the Peace Treaty of 1919 through the prism of its consequences on 20th-century history.

What kind of world in the war’s aftermath?

Some people anticipated or even hoped for the advent of the First World War. Army chiefs-of-staff, diplomats, and intellectuals saw it as the expression of the demands for freedom and nationalism that developed in the democratic European powers during the course of the 19th century.

The settling of terms at the end of the Great War,  which would soon be referred to as “the war to end all wars,”  imposed a harsh and heavy judgment.

Evolution of the historiography and perception of the conflict

As early as 1915, the generals orchestrating the conflict wrote essays on the Great War. They favoured the battle-history approach, recording the confrontations and the military strategies used in them. They told of the patriotic courage of the heroic combatants of Chemin des Dames, the Somme, and Verdun, battlefields that are all memorial sites today.

With the Armistice, preparations for the Paris Peace Conference, and the period between the two world wars, research focused on the origins of the conflict and attempted to assess the blame that could be apportioned to the various participants. The French education minister commissioned historian Pierre Renouvin to write a book on the origins of the war.  Renouvin delved into the international relations that led to the conflict and highlighted the diplomatic context of the Armistice. He analyzed the strategies and ambitions of the belligerent countries during the last months of the war, and concluded that Germany’s capitulation was due to its lack of fighting men.

More attention was directed toward the human aspect of the Great War after the end of the Second World War, with the development of social history, and later, of micro-history. Beyond the diplomatic and strategic aspects, these studies offered social perspectives on the war and its effects, documenting the experiences of ordinary soldiers at the front and of civilians in the rear.

Now, during the centenary of the Great War, there is an attempt at a synthesis of the various historical approaches to the conflict. Interest has centred on the origins of the conflict and international relations of the period, and on commemorating the contemporaries of the Great War by firmly placing them within the social, economic, and geographical contexts of their respective lives. The gathering of all types of witness accounts has been organized, mainly in Europe.

Summarizing the effects a century later

The human aspects

A total of 73.8 million soldiers were mobilized in the First World War: 48.2 million for the Allies and 25.6 million for the Central Powers. Of these, an estimated 9.5 million were killed or disappeared, the equivalent of more than 6,000 deaths per day. Great Britain lost 11% of its combatants, Germany 15%, France 18%, and Canada 9.8%, or 60,661 of the 639,626 men and women in Canadian uniform. Serbia was the country most affected proportionally, with the loss of 40% of its combatants (source: Ined). The bloody character of this conflict was unprecedented.

Combat losses among the belligerent nations
Source: François Héran, “Générations sacrifiées: le bilan démographique de la Grande Guerre,” <i>Population et Sociétés</i>, No. 510, INED, April 2014.

Civilians were not spared. In the invasion of Belgium and northern France by the Central Powers in 1914, 6,500 people died between August and October. The bombing of Great Britain in spring 1917 killed 1,414 and wounded 3,416. On the Eastern Front, it is estimated that 800,000 Armenians were murdered by the Turkish regime after it took power in a coup d’état in 1913.

In all, 21.2 million people were wounded, including 172,950 Canadians. The many invalids and the 300,000 gueules cassées (soldiers who suffered deforming facial wounds) were visible reminders of the violence of the conflict. How could national governments help them in their postwar lives? The matter of war pensions was brought up during the writing of the Treaty of Versailles, together with that of economic compensation. Governments were responsible for the futures of invalid veterans and of the widows and children of the heroes who died for their countries. (For the situation in Canada, see Morton, Desmond and Glenn Wright, Winning the Second Battle: Canadian Veterans and the Return to Civilian Life, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1987.)

This human toll had significant demographic consequences after the war. The abnormally high death rate led to a corresponding birth deficit 20 years later, with a ”hollow-class” effect caused by the hemorrhaging of a whole generation in its optimal reproductive years.


The territories located in combat zones such as Belgium, Italy, and Serbia had been devastated. France was particularly damaged in the north and east of the country, where the battlefront had lasted four years. Some villages were literally wiped off the map, including Courcelette, the site of a memorable victory by the 22nd (French-Canadian) Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1916. Agricultural land was rendered useless by exploding shells. The necessity of restoring these spaces for economic use conditioned life in the rural societies that depended on them.

Factories had to be rebuilt or (re)converted for peacetime production. Reconstruction began in a context of currency devaluation, inflation, and indebtedness. The conflict had, however, spurred technological development that benefitted certain companies in production types or processes. Canadian society, which had been mainly rural when the war broke out, became urban. Industrialization accelerated due to the increased use of the combustion engine, electricity, and rubber. Automobile manufacturing expanded in the United States and Canada, then in Europe. The economic decline caused by the war only lasted a short time. In France, for example, the economy grew at an annual rate of 4%–5% from 1907 to 1913, and 5%–6% from 1922 to 1929. Global economic growth was a reflection of people’s desire to improve their standard of living after the moral and material ordeal of the First World War—this was the dawning of the consumption society that began in North America in the 1920s and spread to Western Europe in the second half of the 20th century.

During the years that the war was fought, nations had to provide for themselves, and the habit of self-sufficiency lasted into the postwar years, resulting in economies that were turned inward. Moreover, in the context of reconstruction, internal demand was very strong, absorbing many of the products that had been exported before the war. Currency fluctuations linked to devaluation policies in the United States and Great Britain discouraged the development of external markets. Commercial networks had to be reorganized.

Weakened temporarily, Europe was still economically powerful, but now faced competition from the United States and Japan.

Political upsets and the new diplomacy

The European powers involved their colonies in the war, tapping them for fighting men and resources. This would become one of the justifications for the nationalist and liberation movements of the 20th century. Great Britain, with the largest of the world’s colonial empires, recognized the sovereignty of the Dominions by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. These countries gained equal status with Britain within the Empire, and were only tied to the “mother country” as members of the British Commonwealth. Canada was the first Dominion to be granted full judicial powers except in the matter of the constitution, which remained in the hands of the British Crown until it was “repatriated” in 1982. Great Britain established privileged economic ties with its former “white” colonies, including Canada. India, which had demanded the same rights since the 1920s, won its independence from Britain in 1947.

In Russia, political changes were precipitated by the war. On March 3, 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk established an armistice between Russia and Germany. The Russian Empire was overturned by the Bolshevik Revolution, plunging the country into civil war that ended in a Communist dictatorship. International relations with Western Europe and the United States were broken off until the time of the Nazi threat.

The Central Powers were no more. The Weimar Republic in Germany was hard put to meet the conditions imposed by the terms of the peace settlement. After first having to defend democratic institutions against Communist turbulence, it proved powerless against the rise of the Nazi ideology, which would again destroy the world’s equilibrium.

In France, the coalition government known as the Union Sacrée came to an end in 1917. Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau placed France at the heart of the peace negotiations that began in Paris in January 1919.

The Paris Peace Conference was where the new world order born from the 1914–1918 war was hammered out. The fact that these peace talks were held in Paris reinforced the idea that Europe was still the centre of world diplomacy, even after the disastrous war.

How to build the future?

“The Paris Peace Conference, the conference from which a new Europe must emerge, and perhaps the consecration of a new spirit in the world of nations, is now open.”

On January 18, 1919, Paris became the centre of world government: delegates from 32 nations gathered there. Thousands of others had also come, attracted by the event, including journalists, writers, and business people from around the globe.

Paris 1919 - Opening of the Paris Peace Conference (04:19)

Directed by Paul Cowan, produced by Paul Saadoun (13 Productions) and Gerry Flahive (National Film Board of Canada), 2008, 93 min 56 sec
© 2008 Productions 13 and National Film Board of Canada

The expectations

The belligerent countries had the duty of officially setting the terms at the outcome of the First World War after the signature of the Armistice at Rethondes, France, on November 11, 1918, which put an end to military hostilities. The task before them was enormous. The talks were held in a context of suffering, charged emotions, festering rancour, and ambition.

France, represented by Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, took a harsh stance toward Germany, demanding compensation from the party it blamed for the damages to its territory caused by the war, and for its losses in human lives. Clemenceau also called for the demilitarization of Germany and the amputation of parts of its territory. To protect France, Clemenceau wanted a toothless Germany.

The British also wanted to be compensated, in part so that France would not take all; their case centred on lost lives, as claims of material damages did not constitute a solid enough justification in the case of Great Britain. However, fearing that excessive severity would compromise the signing of the Treaty and would play into the hands of the Bolsheviks, whose influence was growing in Germany at that time, Britain argued against the truncation of German territory.

Vittorio Orlando, representing Italy, hoped that the settlement would allow his country to regain lost territory, including a port on the Adriatic Sea.

American President Woodrow Wilson was inspired by pacifist ideals. This was the first time an American president in office had travelled to Europe, and it was a foretaste of a practice established in the 20th century, when the United States would be present at all negotiating tables. Wilson was also an advocate for a supranational government that could guarantee peace, bring about economic development, and promote the freedom of peoples. The League of Nations, later criticized and disavowed by many countries, including the United States, was the result of Wilson’s project.

The difficulties

The Peace Conference was unprecedented in its form and mandate, as it aimed to bring all nations together to establish lasting, democratic world security.

The conquered nations—Germany, the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Russia (after its armistice with Germany signed in March 1918)—had no voice in the negotiations. The democratic character of this new world order was also diminished by the fact that as early as March 23, 1919, all the major decisions were being taken by a restricted council made up of the representatives of the four great powers, who had no compunctions about meeting behind closed doors. Statements summarizing their positions were simply relayed to those who held executive power in the other countries. Japan, quickly marginalized, did not stay long at the conference.

The writing of the peace treaty was based on the conclusions of 52 commissions, each of which was divided into several working groups made up of geographers, historians, and economists, including Englishman John Maynard Keynes.  Canadian delegates helped draft documents for the Commission on ports, waterways, and railways, for the regulations governing international flying, and for the convention that established the International Labour Organization. This rational, scientific approach to the study of the consequences of the war and the attribution of blame was adopted with the aim of producing a fair treaty that would bring about lasting peace.

In January 1919, the representatives of all the nations that had been involved in the conflict filed into the Conference, each with their respective demands. Paris was the hub of world diplomacy, where the future of international relations would be shaped, but also where tensions would emerge. Emir Faisal, who had facilitated the efforts of British Empire troops during the fighting in the Middle East, justifiably sought Western support for Arab union. However, while David Lloyd George of Britain was in favour of this project, France opposed it because of its military involvement in Syria. This one example illustrates the complexity of the inherent agreements that had to be considered in the drawing-up of the Treaty of Versailles. Geographers found it difficult to redraw the map, not only of this region, but also of Europe and Africa. The scope of their work changed according to the needs, expectations, and complaints expressed at the Conference. The concerns and issues of the various peoples living in these territories gradually gave way to national imperatives.

Paris 1919 - New borders and colonies, and small nations represented (05:45)

Directed by Paul Cowan, produced by Paul Saadoun (13 Productions) and Gerry Flahive (National Film Board of Canada), 2008, 93 min 56 sec
© 2008 Productions 13 and National Film Board of Canada

Europe after the peace treaties
Source: <i>Histoire-Géographie</i>, Troisième, Hachette Éducation, 2012, p. 59.

The financing of reconstruction was also at the heart of the discussions. Who should pay, and how? Which conditions should be imposed? How could the legitimate amount for reparations be determined? These questions could only be answered through a meticulous inventory of the material damage—the destruction of factories, farms, villages, roads, railways, and bridges—without excluding the human costs of the conflict; orphans and war widows expected governments to acknowledge their sacrifices and their contributions to the defence of the nation by providing the means for them to live decent lives. The position of the Supreme Council on the matter of reparations was unanimous: Germany must pay. It should not be left to British and French taxpayers to take on the whole burden. The Americans saw this solution as an indirect means of recovering the money they had lent to Europe during the war. Debate on this article of the Treaty dealt with the amount and the conditions to set for reimbursement.

Paris 1919 – Reparations demanded of Germany (02:09)

Directed by Paul Cowan, produced by Paul Saadoun (13 Productions) and Gerry Flahive (National Film Board of Canada), 2008, 93 min 56 sec
© 2008 Productions 13 and National Film Board of Canada

Along with the immediate problems that had to be worked out in the aftermath of the war, several other grievances were brought forward and entered the debate in the building of a new world, such as the vote for women, workers’ rights, and the governance of colonies. The contribution to the war effort had justified changes in judicial status. Thus, Great Britain granted women over 30 years of age the right to vote in 1918. In Canada, women who had reached the age of 21 were given the vote on
May 24, 1918, a gesture which had been preceded by provincial initiatives: in Manitoba, for example, women had been able vote in that province’s elections since January 28, 1916.

In March 1919, after many disagreements, concessions, and compromises, the peace talks were over. On April 14, 1919, Germany was summoned to the Conference.

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles

The German delegation, made up of 160 people, arrived in Paris on April 30, 1919. Its members were already aware that Germany was being blamed for the war. The train taking them to Paris had halted in the regions that had suffered the worst in the war, including Verdun. They were only received at the Conference on May 7, when they were presented with a peace treaty that had been written unilaterally.

Paris 1919 - Arrival of the German delegation (09:48)

Directed by Paul Cowan, produced by Paul Saadoun (13 Productions) and Gerry Flahive (National Film Board of Canada), 2008, 93 min 56 sec
© 2008 Productions 13 and National Film Board of Canada

The Treaty of Versailles was the first of the treaties signed to officially end the four years and almost four months of the World War. Although its terms only concerned Germany, it set the conditions for the subsequent pacts that would determine the fate of the other vanquished nations: the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (September 10, 1919) for Austria; the Treaty of Trianon (June 4, 1920) for Hungary; and the Treaty of Sèvres (August 10, 1920) for the former Ottoman Empire, replaced by the Turkish Republic. These dense, complex documents contained territorial, financial, military, and judicial articles. Parts of Germany and Turkey were occupied by Allied forces, including a Canadian unit that played a role in the occupation of Germany for a few months at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919. In Turkey, British troops were posted at Chanak. When the Turks demanded that the troops leave in 1922, Great Britain asked the Dominions if they would declare their military support if necessary. Canada answered no, affirming its independent voice in international affairs—a voice that would be increasingly audible in the years to come.
The Treaty of Versailles has 440 very detailed articles. It was hammered out with the aim of achieving a lasting peace. Its contemporaries either found it too harsh or too lenient, and the generations that followed viewed it as the cause of the Second World War and of the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. Indeed, our knowledge of what happened after this ambitious project was implemented incites us to condemn it, although its failure may be explained by the weighty context, the large number of matters to resolve, and the unprecedented character of some of its legal points.

When the terms were revealed on May 7, 1919, Germany understood that the Treaty was punitive. The victors were attributing the entire blame for the conflict on the enemy. The Germans had violated Belgian neutrality, provoking the outbreak of war, and were therefore deemed obligated to make reparations to the tune of 20 billion marks in gold before May 1, 1921; a further amount would be added to this after that date. Germany was being asked for a commitment to pay an unknown amount. It would lose Alsace and Moselle, acquired in 1870, as well as all territories acquired after August 3, 1918. This annulled the terms of the Russo-German Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which had granted Germany territory stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Caucasus. These amputations profited the peoples demanding nation-state status in the territories that became Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. In the eyes of the Allied victors, the existence of these countries encircling Germany and Austria would hem them in. Germany was also stripped of its colonies. The subjugation of Germany also touched upon the armed forces: teaching about or promoting the German army was prohibited. The army was reduced to 100,000 men, whose function was strictly to keep order; it was also disarmed, its air and sea defence systems gutted. The German army nonetheless showed its resistance to the Diktat of Versailles by sinking its fleet the day before the Allies were scheduled to take possession of it.

Paris 1919 - Conditions presented to Germans, reactions and stalemate in Paris (04:33)

Directed by Paul Cowan, produced by Paul Saadoun (13 Productions) and Gerry Flahive (National Film Board of Canada), 2008, 93 min 56 sec
© 2008 Productions 13 and National Film Board of Canada

The Treaty of Versailles was fundamentally a set of sanctions against Germany. The German delegation wrote requests appealing for a softening of the text, particularly in the matter of blame. The German people, under embargo, who had seen their soldiers on parade in Berlin after the Armistice and being congratulated by the Weimar Republic, had trouble understanding such a condemnation.

Paris 1919 - Germany's refusal to sign and Lloyd George's reversal (01:34)

Directed by Paul Cowan, produced by Paul Saadoun (13 Productions) and Gerry Flahive (National Film Board of Canada), 2008, 93 min 56 sec
© 2008 Productions 13 and National Film Board of Canada

On June 16, 1919, the final form of the Treaty was presented to the German delegation. There had been very few changes and the government was given an ultimatum of five days to accept it. The threat of an Allied invasion and the abrupt tone of the ultimatum swayed Germany to give in to the victors and sign the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. The signatures of two Canadian politicians appear on page 215 of the Treaty: that of Charles Joseph Doherty, Conservative Member of Parliament for St. Anne in Montreal, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada; and of Arthur Lewis Sifton, a former Liberal premier of Alberta who had resigned to join the Union Government during the conscription crisis, Member for Medicine Hat, Alberta, and Minister of Customs and Inland Revenue.

Signing of the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors, June 28, 1919
© Excelsior-L’Équipe/Roger-Viollet

As the signing of the Treaty of Versailles was the essential component of the peace settlement, the subsequent negotiations and treaties went forward without the presence of the emblematic figures of the Council of Four. President Wilson left France on the very day of the signing of the Treaty. The great peace conference had ended. Questions had been raised, and problems and new dangers loomed on the horizon.

A peace treaty, source of tensions in the 20th century?

The nature and the terms of the treaties of 1919 and the following years contained the seeds of discontent that would grow into the major tensions and conflicts of the 20th century.

Failure of the League of Nations

In his speech to the American Congress on January 8, 1918, President Wilson presented his new vision of international relations in the principles of his Fourteen Points. He had led the United States into the war in 1917, convinced that the conflict ravaging Europe—financed by the international economy—was a struggle between democracy and imperialism. Wilson appeared as both arbiter and purveyor of hope as he defended his ideals during the peace negotiations. He wanted to avoid an overly harsh treaty, but was obliged to compromise in the face of France’s relentless insistence on making Germany pay and the British refusal to allow freedom of the seas.

When he returned to the United States, President Wilson failed to obtain the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles by Congress, and the anti-League of Nations Republican Party won the next American elections in 1920. Wilson received the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in Europe.

The American president’s presence at the Peace Conference placed the United States at the heart of international diplomatic activity. The principle of the freedom of peoples that Woodrow Wilson proposed, although it was little understood by his contemporaries, was what would justify American involvement in the Second World War. After the conference of 1919, the United States became an indispensable participant in international affairs throughout the 20th century, taking on the role of the “world’s policeman” in the 1990s.

The creation of the League of Nations was largely due to the will of Woodrow Wilson, who believed in international agreement among nation-states. He hoped the nations would abandon the arms race which had aggravated the power struggle, leading to war. He wanted to draw the world into a system of collective negotiations that would ensure world equilibrium and peace. Canada was a full-fledged League of Nations member; Canadian Raoul Dandurand was president of the General Assembly in 1925–1926.

One of the first signs of the League’s weakness was the fact that, due to the American Congress’s refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the United States never became a member.

Moreover, as diplomatic negotiation was the only path to resolving conflict, and the implementation of resolutions and eventual sanctions depended on the willingness of the members, the League of Nations was unable to prevent the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. In the course of the 1930s, Germany, Japan, and Italy left the League. The failure of this peace institution was made clear with the advent of the Second World War.

At the end of that conflict, an organization in the same spirit, but endowed with military intervention powers, came into being in June 1945: the United Nations.

A legacy of conflict

It is undeniable that the reasons for the triggering of the Second World War can be found within the articles of the Treaty of Versailles itself.

The terms of the “Diktat” of Versailles stoked the revenge-seeking, nationalist sentiments developed by Hitler. The young Weimar Republic was discredited as soon as the Treaty was signed. Germany entered a series of political crises. The parties of the extreme left, notably the Spartacists, denounced the capitalist domination of the Western democracies. The parties of the extreme right, for their part, denounced the betrayal and humiliation of the acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler based his Nazi ideology on that resentment, purporting to restore Germany’s greatness by the re-establishment of the Reich.

Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando left the Peace Conference when Italy’s territorial claims were rejected by the Council. That country also fell prey to nationalist agitation, based on the idea that the fruits of victory had been sacrificed in the Treaty. In March 1919, Mussolini created the fascist Italian League of Combatants, bringing together opponents to the traditional political parties and to democracy. The Italian fascist movement became militarized in 1920, and Mussolini took power on October 30, 1922, without arousing strong international reaction. In 1939, Italy became a member of the Axis and contributed to plunging Europe into the Second World War.

In Asia, Japan, a country that had fought the German navy for the Allies in the Pacific, was rewarded by the granting of territories in China, i.e., colonies taken from Germany by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Despite having sided with the democracies in the First World War, Japan yielded to an expansionist ideology and invaded Manchuria in 1931.

By the 1930s, the pacifist spirit that had animated the months following the end of the First World War seemed to have died.

In Central Europe, the young nations created at Versailles in 1919—Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia—were gobbled up by Nazi Germany in 1939. The Allied victory in 1945 restored their sovereignty for the second half of the 20th century. Even so, the will for the unification of peoples persisted, to the detriment of the claims of nation-states.
While Czechoslovakia managed to divide into two new countries peacefully in 1993, Yugoslavia suffered a bloody civil war from 1991 to 2001.


All the blame for the subsequent conflicts of the 20th century cannot reasonably be attributed to the peace settlement of the First World War; however, tensions were definitely exacerbated by it.

Beyond the political aspects, we must recognize that the first world conflict was a turning point in modern history. Placing it in perspective allows us to see it from a realistic rather than an emotional point of view.

Bibliography / Webography

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  • Fabienne Boch, Un parlementarisme de guerre, 1914-1919, Paris, Belin, 2002.
  • Antoine Coppolani, Charles-Philippe David, Jean-François Thomas (eds.), La Fabrique de la paix. Acteurs, processus, mémoires, Paris, Hermann, 2015 (Presses de l’Université Laval, Québec City, Canada, 2015).
  • Jean-Michel Gaillard, “Versailles, 1919: la paix des vainqueurs,” L’Histoire, No. 232, 1999, pp. 76–85.
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  • Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, London, John Murray Publishers Ltd., 2003.
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    “ La fin de la Première Guerre mondiale : une paix restaurée ? ”
    “ La signature du traité de Versailles ”
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