3 Crucial Battles at the Beginning of World War One

3 Crucial Battles at the Beginning of World War One

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The machine gun emerged as a decisive weapon during World War I. Credit: Imperial War Museum / Commons.

The early skirmishes and battles of the First World War set the tone for much of the rest of the War.

These battles help us to understand how the Western Front became bogged down with years of trench warfare, and why the later battles of the Eastern front took place the way that they did.

Command and conquer

It is difficult to understand these battles without understanding the systems of control that both sides relied on. Both sides faced the issue of exercising effective command over a large area with fairly primitive methods of communication.

Morse code, some telephone communications and all variety of messengers, from human, to dog, to pigeon, were used.

Dan Snow takes an emotional journey through the key battlefields of the Western Front, from the memorial parks at the Somme to the formidable defences around Ypres.

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The Allies relied on a system of centralised planning and execution, done at the highest levels of the command hierarchy. This meant subordinate commanders had little agency, and could not exploit tactical opportunities quickly when they opened up. The Germans operated on a general plan, but pushed the way that it was executed down the ranks as far as was possible.

The Germans gave their junior commanders almost free reign in how they chose to execute orders. This system of centralised planning but decentralised execution developed into what is known today as Auftragstaktik, or mission-oriented tactics in English.

French soldiers anticipating an assault in a ditch. Credit: National Library of French / Public Domain.

1. Marne

On the Western Front the Germans had driven the French and British back into their own territory, almost as far as Paris.

As the Germans pressed forward, their communications came under strain, as their commander Moltke, was 500 kilometres behind the front line in Koblenz. The frontline commanders Karl von Bülow and Alexander von Kluck manoeuvred independently of one another, a problem created in the Auftragstaktik system, and a gap emerged in the German line, about 30 kilometres long.

The British force pressed into the gap, forcing the Germans to retreat, falling back some hundred kilometres to the Aisne River where they dug in to protect themselves from the pursuing enemy. This marked the beginnings of trench warfare.

2. Tannenberg

On the Eastern Front Russia saw one of its greatest defeats and one of its greatest victories only days apart.

The Battle of Tannenberg was fought in late August of 1914, and resulted in the almost total destruction of the Russian Second Army. Its commanding general, Alexander Samsonov, committed suicide after the defeat.

Russian prisoners and guns captured at Tannenberg. Credit: Photos of the Great War / Public Domain.

At the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, the Germans proceeded to destroy much of the Russian First Army, and the Russians would take almost half a year to recover from the defeat. The Germans used the railways to move quickly, which allowed them to concentrate their forces against each of the Russian armies, and since the Russians were not encoding their radio messages at that time, they were easy to locate.

Once they were crushed by the Germans, the entire Russian army was saved only by their remarkably swift retreat, at a speed of about 40 kilometres a day, which took them off German soil and reversed their early gains, but importantly meant that the line did not collapse.

Dan talks to Richard van Emden about his new book - Missing: the need for closure after the Great War. It is the story of one woman’s relentless search for her missing son’s body. Richard also looks at the bigger picture: how long should the nation search for its dead and the mistakes made identifying the dead, when exhumation parties were under such intolerable pressure.

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The Battle of Tannenberg did not actually take place in Tannenberg, which was some 30 kilometres to the west. The German commander, Paul von Hindenburg, ensured that it was named Tannenberg in order to avenge the defeat of the Teutonic Knights by the Slavs 500 years earlier.

The battle brought considerable acclaim to both Hindenburg and his staff officer Erich von Ludendorff.

3. Galicia

The blow to Russian morale inflicted by Tannenberg was only weathered by the defeats inflicted by the Russians on the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia.

The Battle of Galicia, also known as the Battle of Lemberg, was a major battle between Russia and Austria-Hungary during the early stages of World War I in 1914. In the course of the battle, the Austro-Hungarian armies were severely defeated and forced out of Galicia, while the Russians captured Lemberg and held Eastern Galicia for about nine months.

Map of the tactical movements of troops on the Eastern Front, up until September 26, 1914. Credit: US Military Academy / Public Domain.

As the Austrians retreated many Slavic soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army simply surrendered and some even offered to fight for the Russians. One historian estimates Austro-Hungarian losses of 100,000 dead, 220,000 wounded and 100,000 captured, while the Russians lost 225,000 men, of which 40,000 were captured.

The Russians completely surrounded the Austrian fortress of Przemyśl and initiated a Siege of Przemyśl, which lasted for over a hundred days, with over 120,000 soldiers trapped inside. The battle severely damaged the Austro-Hungarian Army, saw many of its trained officers die, and crippled Austrian fighting power.

Though the Russians had been utterly crushed at the Battle of Tannenberg, their victory at Lemberg prevented that defeat from fully taking its toll on Russian public opinion.

Featured Image: Public Domain.

One of the Biggest Air Battles in History – the Battle Of Britain in 38 Great Images

It may be almost impossible to imagine today, but not long before the Nazi campaign against Britain got underway, Hitler mused that England might capitulate to Germany without putting up much of a fight at all.

Apparently he underestimated Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, much the same way he would later underestimate Josef Stalin, when he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

Britain wasn’t about to give up control of the skies easily, quietly or quickly. Although Germany had the Luftwaffe, which was equipped with excellent aircraft, when up against the fighter planes of the Royal Air Force (RAF) it was no contest.

German Heinkel He 111 bombers over the English Channel. 1940. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-0678 CC-BY-SA 3.0]

Nonetheless, Hitler ordered the bombing of Britain to commence on July 10 th , 1940, and the two countries fought almost constantly until October 31 st , when victory went decidedly to Great Britain. It became known as the Battle of Britain, an aerial campaign that was, in some respects, a fight for Britain’s very soul as a military champion on the right side of history.

By the time the conflict subsided, almost 3,000 civilians had lost their lives.

It was a gruelling campaign for both sides. But the RAF had Spitfires and Hurricanes and skilled pilots to steer them, and it wasn’t long before Germany’s fantasies of an easy fight evaporated like so much dust in a sandstorm.

The Battle of Britain is not only an example of the RAF’s skill. It was the first battle fought solely in the air, a battle that cost Germany more than 1,500 fighter planes. Hermann Goering, chief of the Luftwaffe had mistakenly, just like his boss, thought that Britain would be quickly and easily defeated.

He soon realized Germany was in for the fight of its life, a fight that of course it wound up losing, in 1945 when it completely surrendered to the Allies.

A still from camera-gun film taken from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I of No. 609 Squadron RAF, flown by by Pilot Officer J D Bisdee, as he dives on a formation of Heinkel He IIIs of KG 55 which had just bombed the Supermarine aircraft works at Woolston, Southampton. 1940. [© IWM (CH 1826)] A still from camera gun film shows tracer ammunition from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I of No. 609 Squadron RAF, flown by Flight Lieutenant J H G McArthur, hitting a Heinkel He 111 on its starboard quarter. These aircraft were part of a large formation from KG 53 and KG 55 which attacked the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s works at Filton, Bristol, just before midday on 25th September 1940. [© IWM (CH 1823)] Messerschmitt Bf110 fighter of Zerstörergeschwader 76 heavy fighter squadron over the English Channel, Aug 1940. These were the first fighters with the shark’s mouth that inspired the RAF in Africa and the AVG in China.

A flight of German Do-17 Z bombers of Kampfgeschwader 3 over France or Belgium, possibly en route to Britain, September-October 1940. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-343-0679-14A / Gentsch / CC-BY-SA 3.0] Supermarine Spitfire Mark Is of No. 610 Squadron based at Biggin Hill, flying in ‘vic’ formation, 24 July 1940. [© IWM (CH 740)] Hawker Hurricanes of No 1 Squadron, Royal Air Force, based at Wittering, Cambridgeshire, followed by a similar formation of Supermarine Spitfires of No 266 Squadron, during a flying display for aircraft factory workers, October 1940. [© IWM (CH 1561)] A still from camera-gun film taken from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I of No. 609 Squadron RAF, flown by by Pilot Officer J D Bisdee, as he dives on a formation of Heinkel He 111s of KG 55 which have just bombed the Supermarine aircraft works at Woolston, Southampton. The rearmost aircraft of the leading ‘staffel’ receives a burst of machine gun fire from Bisdee, as shown by the streaks of light from the tracer bullets. Its port engine is also on fire. [© IWM (CH 1827)] A still from camera-gun film taken from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I, flown by the Commanding Officer of No. 609 Squadron RAF, Squadron Leader H S Darley, as he opens fire amongst a formation of Heinkel He 111s of KG 55 which have just bombed the Supermarine aircraft works at Woolston, Southampton. [© IWM (CH 1829)] A still from camera-gun film taken from a Supermarine Spitfire Mark I of No. 609 Squadron RAF, flown by Flying Officer Tadeusz “Novi” Nowierski (formerly Polish Air Force) as he closes in on a formation of Dornier Do 17Zs of KG3 south-west of London at approximately 5.45 pm on 7 September 1940, the first day of the Blitz. Tracer bullets from the intercepting Spitfires can be seen travelling towards the enemy aircraft which were heading back to their base after bombing East London and the docks. [© IWM (CH 1820)] A Dornier Do-17 medium bomber dropping a string of bombs on London. 20 September 1940.

A portrait of Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park while commanding RAF squadrons on Malta, September 1942. In Germany, he was supposedly known as “the Defender of London”. [© IWM (CM 3513)] A Spitfire aircraft going down after being hit by a German Heinkel III in a dog fight. [© AWM 044727] A Spitfire pilot of No. 610 Squadron recounts how he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 110, Biggin Hill. September 1940. [© IWM (HU 104450)] Bf-109 after an emergency landing on its way back to France across the English Channel. 1940. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-344-0741-30 Röder CC-BY-SA 3.0] Bomb with sign Extra-Havanna für Churchill. August 1940. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-342-0615-18 Spieth CC-BY-SA 3.0] British fighter Supermarine Spitfire flies in front of the cab of the German Heinkel He 111.

British pilots running towards their fighters (Spitfires) on the air-raid alarm.

Camera gun footage of a Ju 87 Stuka being shot down by an RAF fighter, 1940. [© IWM (C 2418)] Destroyed German bomber Heinkel HE 111 [Av Franz Hollerweger CC BY-SA 2.0] German Do 17 bomber and British Spitfire fighter in the sky over Britain. December 1940. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1969-094-18 Speer CC-BY-SA 3.0] German Heinkel He 111 flying towards their targets in the United Kingdom.

German Heinkel He 111s which went into service in 1937. Some 6000 Heinkel He 111s were built but were found to be a poor match for Hurricanes and Spitfires during the Battle of Britain.

German Officer examines the bullet holes on the fuselage of Heinkel He 111. The damage was caused by 7.69mm machine guns of British aircraft. [Via] Ground staff refueling a Messerschmitt Bf 110. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-404-0521-19A Koster CC-BY-SA 3.0] Hawker Hurricane Mk I aircraft of No 85 Squadron, Royal Air Force on patrol during the Battle of Britain. [© IWM (CH 1510)] Hawker Hurricane Mk Is of No. 242 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, 1940.

Hawker Hurricanes of No. 85 Squadron RAF, October 1940. [© IWM (CH 1500)] Heinkel HE-111 aircraft of the Luftwaffe being shot down during the Battle of Britain. [Canada. Dept. of National Defence Library and Archives Canada PA-] Hurricanes of No. 85 Squadron in flight in search of the enemy, October 1940. [© IWM (CH 1499)] Sergeant Schnell Siegfried of the 4.JG2 Squadron presents the marks of victories on the tail of his Messerschmitt fighter Bf 109E. [Via] KG 76 on their way to the target, 18th August 1940.

Pattern of condensation trails left by British and German aircraft after a dog fight. [© IWM (H 4219)] Spitfire pilots pose beside the wreckage of a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, which they shot down as it was attacking a Channel convoy, 1940. [© IWM (CH 2064)] Supermarine Spitfire Mark Is of No. 610 Squadron based at Biggin Hill, flying in ‘vic’ formation, 24 July 1940. [© IWM (CH 740)] Supermarine Spitfire Mk VBs of No. 131 Squadron RAF being prepared for a sweep at Merston, a satellite airfield of Tangmere, Sussex. June 1942. [© IWM (CH 5879)] The Crew and a ground staff of the Luftwaffe prepare the start of the bomber Junkers Ju-88. [Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-402-0265-03A Pilz CC-BY-SA 3.0] The front of a Heinkel He-111 medium bomber in flight during a bombing mission to London. November 1940.

Two Dornier Do 17Z of the KG76 Squadron on London’s West Ham sky.

The Hundred Years' War

England and France fought the Hundred Years' War for over 100 years, from 1337 through 1453. It was a turning point in European battles that saw the end of valiant knights and the introduction of the English Longbow.

This epic war began as Edward III (ruled 1327–1377) attempted to gain the French throne and reclaim England's lost territories. The years were filled with a multitude of smaller wars but ended with a French victory.

Ultimately, Henry VI (r. 1399–1413) was forced to abandon English efforts in France and focus attention at home. His mental stability was called into question, leading to the Wars of the Roses just a few years later.

Battles - The Battle of Belleau Wood, 1918

Comprising two related actions, firstly at Chateau-Thierry from 3-4 June and then at Belleau Wood itself from 6-26 June, the Battle of Belleau Wood saw the re-capture by U.S. forces of the wood on the Metz-Paris road taken at the end of May by German Seventh Army forces arriving at the Marne River around Chateau-Thierry and held by four divisions as part of the German Aisne offensive.

Chateau-Thierry formed the tip of the German advance towards Paris, some 50 miles south-west. Defended by U.S. Second and Third Divisions dispatched at the behest of the French by AEF Commander-in-Chief Jack Pershing, the Americans launched a counter-attack on 3-4 June with the assistance of the French Tenth Colonial Division in a spirited action together they succeeded in pushing the Germans back across the Marne to Jaulgonne.

Rejuvenated by success first at Cantigny (at the end of May) and now at Chateau-Thierry, General Bundy's Second Division forces followed up Chateau-Thierry two days later with the difficult exercise of capturing Belleau Wood.

Second Division's Marine Corps, under James Harbord, were tasked with the taking of the wood. This perilous venture involved a murderous trek across an open wheat field, swept from end to end by German machine gun fire, a fact that continues to generate controversy today among some historians.

As a consequence of the open nature of the advance on the wood, casualties on the first day, 6 June, were the highest in Marine Corps history (a dubious record which remained until the capture of Japanese-held Tarawa in November 1943).

Fiercely defended by the Germans, the wood was first taken by the Marines (and Third Infantry Brigade), then ceded back to the Germans - and again taken by the U.S. forces a total of six times before the Germans were finally expelled. Also captured were the nearby villages of Vaux and Bouresche.

The battle ran from 6-26 June and by its end saw U.S. forces suffer 9,777 casualties, of which 1,811 were fatal. The number of German casualties is not known, although some 1,600 troops were taken prisoner. More critically, the combined Chateau-Thierry/Belleau Wood action brought to an end the last major German offensive of the war.

The French name for the wood, Bois Belleau, was subsequently officially renamed Bois de la Brigade de Marine, in honour of the Marine Corps's tenacity in its re-taking.

The Russian June Offensive was launched in June according to the Julian calendar, and it collapsed almost as soon as it began.

Jutland was the only major encounter between the main British and German battle fleets.

Battles - The First Battle of Krithia, 1915

Having established beachheads at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove on the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsular in the wake of the landings of 25 April 1915, Commander-in-Chief Sir Ian Hamilton determined to open the peninsular land campaign by breaking through the Turkish defensive lines via the main Allied force at Cape Helles, capture Krithia and so link up with the remaining force at Anzac Cove.

Local Allied commander Aylmer Hunter-Weston - who had singularly failed to distinguish himself during the original landings by failing to press forward while he had the opportunity - had however already suffered notable casualties during the landings. His force had dwindled from 20,000 to just 14,000 men, including 5,000 French colonial troops.

Furthermore Hunter-Weston's supply position was critical. A mere 28 guns had been landed, many machine guns had been lost and there were sufficiently few pack animals that infantrymen were required to carry all of their own equipment, food and ammunition.

Facing him in the 7km line stretching across the southern tip of the peninsular was a roughly equivalent Turkish force under the command of regional commander Liman von Sanders.

Hamilton ordered Hunter-Weston to seize control of Krithia to the immediate rear of the Turkish line, and with it Achi Baba, a prominent (and heavily defended) 200-metre hill feature some 2km beyond Krithia. Hamilton had originally intended that Achi Baba should be seized on the first day of the landings convinced of its great strategic value he was henceforth persistent in striving for its capture (some present-day Australian historians argue that the feature was by no means as important as Hamilton believed).

Once Krithia was in Allied hands Hamilton intended to continue to push northwards, removing Turk defenders from the heights defending the Dardanelles Straits. The ultimate aim of the campaign was the capture of the Turkish capital Constantinople and control of the Straits. The latter would provide the Allies with a key supply route to their Russian partners.

Thus Hunter-Weston initiated what became the first of three battles of Krithia at 8am on 28 April 1915 with a moderate bombardment. The British attacked the extreme left of the Turkish line while French forces under General d'Amade attacked the extreme right. The intention was to progress up the spine of the peninsula and capture Krithia from the rear.

Both attacks were however readily repulsed in spite of encouraging initial progress. Indeed the British line to the left actually broke in the face of a Turkish bayonet charge and had to be rescued with a prolonged off-shore bombardment from HMS Queen Elisabeth.

Attacks at the centre of the line, opposed by a mere 200 Turkish troops, were nevertheless also thrown back with great loss. Realising the futility of his position Hunter-Weston consequently abandoned the attack at 6pm. His troops returned to the trenches they had left in the morning.

Allied casualties during the battle were heavy, with approximately 3,000 losses from the original force of 14,000. Three days later Turkish minister of war Enver Pasha instructed Liman - an attached German officer - to strike back at the Allied force.

A further Allied attack was launched following a pause for reinforcement on 6 May: the Second Battle of Krithia.

To view maps detailing the progress of the Gallipoli campaign click here and here and here and here.

Saturday, 22 August, 2009 Michael Duffy

A "Communication Trench" was a narrow trench constructed at an angle to a defensive trench to permit concealed access to the defensive trench.

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Battles - All by Date

This section contains details of actions, battles and offensives fought during World War One on all fronts.

These include landmark battles fought at Tannenberg (on the east), Aisne, Verdun and the Somme (on the west), along the Isonzo (Italy) and at Jutland (at sea).

The sidebar to the right allows you to view actions by theatre currently you can choose to sort battles fought on the Eastern, Western, Gallipoli, Italian, Palestine and Mesopotamian fronts plus the African Wars and encounters fought at sea.

Additional entries are added periodically.

Engagement Date
Battle of Liege Opened 5 August 1914
Battle of the Frontiers Opened 5 August 1914
Battle of Mulhouse Opened 7 August 1914
Battle of Haelen Opened 12 August 1914
Invasion of Lorraine Opened 14 August 1914
Battle of Stalluponen Opened 17 August 1914
Battle of Gumbinnen Opened 20 August 1914
Battle of the Ardennes Opened 21 August 1914
Battle of Charleroi Opened 21 August 1914
Siege of Namur Opened 21 August 1914
Battle of Mons Opened 23 August 1914
Capture of Dinant Opened 23 August 1914
Siege of Maubeuge Opened 25 August 1914
Destruction of Louvain Opened 25 August 1914
Battle of Le Cateau Opened 26 August 1914
Battle of Tannenberg Opened 26 August 1914
Battle of Heligoland Bight Opened 28 August 1914
Battle of Guise Opened 29 August 1914
Siege of Tsingtao Opened 2 September 1914
First Battle of the Marne Opened 6 September 1914
First Battle of the Masurian Lakes Opened 9 September 1914
Battle of Bita Paka Opened 11 September 1914
First Battle of the Aisne Opened 12 September 1914
First Battle of Albert Opened 25 September 1914
Battle of Sandfontein Opened 26 September 1914
Siege of Antwerp Opened 28 September 1914
First Battle of Arras Opened 1 October 1914
First Battle of Ypres Opened 14 October 1914
First Battle of Ypres (Second Account), Opened 14 October 1914
Battle of the Yser Opened 18 October 1914
Battle of Coronel Opened 1 November 1914
Battle of Tanga Opened 3 November 1914
Capture of Basra Opened 5 November 1914
Battle of Qurna Opened 3 December 1914
Battle of the Falkland Islands Opened 8 December 1914
Raid on Scarborough and Hartlepool Opened 16 December 1914
Battle of Givenchy Opened 18 December 1914
First Battle of Champagne Opened 20 December 1914
Battle of Dogger Bank Opened 24 January 1915
Battle of Bolimov Opened 31 January 1915
Defence of the Suez Canal Opened 3 February 1915
Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes Opened 7 February 1915
Initial Dardanelles Bombardment Opened 19 February 1915
Battle of Neuve-Chapelle Opened 10 March 1915
Attempt to Force the Narrows Opened 18 March 1915
Battle of Shaiba Opened 11 April 1915
Second Battle of Ypres Opened 22 April 1915
Landings at Helles & Anzac Cove Opened 25 April 1915
First Battle of Krithia Opened 28 April 1915
Counter-attack at Eski Hissarlik Opened 1 May 1915
Second Battle of Krithia Opened 6 May 1915
Battle of Festubert Opened 15 May 1915
Turkish attack at Anzac Cove Opened 19 May 1915
Capture of Amara Opened 31 May 1915
Third Battle of Krithia Opened 4 June 1915
Battles of the Isonzo Opened June 1915-October 1915
First Battle of the Isonzo Opened 23 June 1915
Battle of Nasiriyeh Opened 27 June 1915
Battle of Gully Ravine Opened 28 June 1915
Attack on Achi Baba Opened 12 July 1915
Second Battle of the Isonzo Opened 18 July 1915
Landings at Suvla Bay Opened 6 August 1915
Battle of Lone Pine Opened 6 August 1915
Battle of Sari Bair Opened 6 August 1915
Battle of the Nek Opened 6 August 1915
Battle of Hill 60 Opened 21 August 1915
Battle of Scimitar Hill Opened 21 August 1915
Battle of Loos Opened 25 September 1915
Capture of Kut-al-Amara Opened 28 September 1915
Battle of Es Sinn Opened 28 September 1915
Third Battle of the Isonzo Opened 18 October 1915
Fourth Battle of the Isonzo Opened 10 November 1915
Battle of Ctesiphon Opened 2 November 1915
Siege of Kut-al-Amara Opened 7 December 1915
Evacuation of Gallipoli Opened 18 December 1915
Battle of Sheikh Sa'ad Opened 6 January 1916
Battle of the Wadi Opened 13 January 1916
Battle of Hanna Opened 21 January 1916
Battle of Verdun Opened 21 February 1916
Battle of Dujaila Opened 8 March 1916
Fifth Battle of the Isonzo Opened 9 March 1916
Battle of Lake Naroch Opened 18 March 1916
First Battle of Kut Opened 5 April 1916
Battle of Asiago Opened 15 May 1916
Trentino Offensive Opened 15 May 1916
Battle of Jutland Opened 31 May 1916
Battle of Lutsk Opened 4 June 1916
Battle of Khanaqin Opened June 1916
Battle of the Somme Opened 1 July 1916
Battle of Bazentin Ridge Opened 14 July 1916
Battle of Delville Wood Opened 15 July 1916
Battle of Pozieres Ridge Opened 23 July 1916
Battle of Romani Opened 3 August 1916
Sixth Battle of the Isonzo Opened 6 August 1916
Battle of Gorizia Opened 6 August 1916
Battle of Guillemont Opened 3 September 1916
Seventh Battle of the Isonzo Opened 14 September 1916
Battle of Flers-Courcelette Opened 15 September 1916
Eighth Battle of the Isonzo Opened 10 October 1916
Ninth Battle of the Isonzo Opened 1 November 1916
Second Battle of Kut Opened 13 December 1916
Battle of Khadairi Bend Opened 9 January 1917
Battle of Nahr-al-Kalek Opened 26 February 1917
Capture of Baghdad Opened 11 March 1917
Samarrah Offensive Opened 13 March 1917
Seizure of Falluja Opened 19 March 1917
First Battle of Gaza Opened 26 March 1917
Battle of Jebel Hamlin Opened 25 March 1917
Battle of Vimy Ridge Opened 9 April 1917
Battle of Shiala Opened 11 April 1917
Second Battle of the Aisne Opened 16 April 1917
Second Battle of Gaza Opened 17 April 1917
Battle of Istabulat Opened 21 April 1917
Battle of the Boot Opened 30 April 1917
Tenth Battle of the Isonzo Opened 12 May 1917
Battle of Otranto Straits Opened 14 May 1917
Battle of Messines Opened 7 June 1917
Third Battle of Ypres Opened 31 July 1917
Third Battle of Ypres (2) Opened 31 July 1917
Battle of Passchendaele Opened 31 July 1917
Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo Opened 19 August 1917
Battle of Ramadi Opened 28 September 1917
Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo Opened 24 October 1917
Battle of Caporetto Opened 24 October 1917
Third Battle of Gaza Opened 31 October 1917
Battle of Beersheba Opened 31 October 1917
Capture of Tikrit Opened 5 November 1917
Battle of Mughar Ridge Opened 13 November 1917
Battle of Cambrai Opened 20 November 1917
Fall of Jerusalem Opened 8 December 1917
Raid on Zeebrugge Opened 23 April 1918
Third Battle of the Aisne Opened 27 May 1918
Battle of Cantigny Opened 28 May 1918
Battle of Chateau-Thierry Opened 3 June 1918
Battle of Belleau Wood Opened 6 June 1918
Battle of the Piave River Opened 15 June 1918
Battle of Le Hamel Opened 4 July 1918
Second Battle of the Marne Opened 15 July 1918
Battle of Havrincourt Opened 12 September 1918
Battle of Epehy Opened 18 September 1918
Battle of Vittorio Veneto Opened 23 October 1918
Battle of Sharqat Opened 29 October 1918

Saturday, 22 August, 2009 Michael Duffy

A "British warm" was a heavy issue greatcoat for officers.

- Did you know?

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

It was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, which sparked off the First World War. Ferdinand wasn’t well liked in Austria-Hungary, partly because he was a difficult man to deal with, and partly because he wished to reform Hungary to give the Slavs more say, but he acted as a check on Austrian actions immediately before the war, moderating response and helping to avoid conflict.

Important lessons learned from WWI

Empires were destroyed, millions were killed and the world was upended in a war meant to end all others.

On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, a move that came a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. In a matter of days, Europe's great powers went to war.

USA TODAY Network reached out to historians and foreign policy experts to determine what lessons from World War I can be applied a century later.

1. 'Exhaust diplomacy before you use force'

Though the assassination of the archduke was the flash point that led to war, some have suggested that, given the underlying tensions that had built up in Europe over decades, war was, to some extent, inevitable. Was it? Is war ever unavoidable?

"There's always a way out," said Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and veteran diplomat who served as undersecretary of State for political affairs in President George W. Bush's second term. "Imaginative, courageous leaders can avoid the worst happening if they're smart enough, if they're aware enough, if they work hard enough," he said.

That doesn't mean war can always be averted, Burns cautioned, but an effort must always be made.

The assassination of the archduke on June 28 was almost avoided. If Franz Ferdinand's driver had followed the correct route, the assassination may not have occurred — at least not that day.


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Though it's difficult to fathom that such a seemingly trivial move could have triggered a global conflagration, if the spark that ignited World War I hadn't happened, who knows what could have occurred in the intervening time, says Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and a former diplomat who served as an assistant Defense secretary in the Clinton administration.

"Yes, it's true that sparks come along all the time," Nye said.

"But on the other hand, if a spark doesn't happen, it may rain," he said, explaining that circumstances could have changed in the months or years that followed that made the triggering event not as explosive as the assassination proved to be.

U.S. troops of the 107th Regiment Infantry, 27th Division, advance through a barbed-wire entanglement Sept. 13, 1918, near Beauqueanes, Somme, France. (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps via AP)

"You need open and trustful channels of communication," said David Kennedy, a Stanford history professor. Kennedy's history of World War II and the Great Depression, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize.

He said that today there are global institutions — the United Nations, the G8, G20 and European Union, among others — that at least provide forums for states to talk.

Global systems such as these weren't in place in 1914, Kennedy noted, saying he believes "the international system today has a lot more resilience than it did in 1914."

"If you think that war is a possibility, you really have an obligation to your people to exhaust diplomacy before you use force," Burns said. "Force has to be the last option. It can't be the first."

Canadian soldiers carry a stretcher through the mud near Boesinghe, Belgium, in 1917. (Photo: AP)

2. War is always unpredictable

It's almost hard to believe 100 years later, but many leaders at the time thought World War I would be over quickly. Few, if any, would have predicted a four-year battle of attrition that would result in millions of lost lives.

"Leaders on all sides did not choose the war that they ended up fighting," said Daniel Sargent, a history professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

This is not a wartime phenomenon unique to the leaders of the era — and it's a lesson that perhaps hasn't been fully learned.

"It's the repeated story, and you wonder why it takes people so much effort to learn it: that once you unleash large-scale violence, i.e. make war, it's almost impossible to predict the course of events thereafter," Kennedy said.

"Policymakers, in general, exaggerate their own capacity to control historical events," Sargent said.

The two most recent conflicts the United States engaged in — Afghanistan, which is still winding down, and Iraq — are both cases of the unpredictability of war.

"I don't think that the leaders of the Bush administration in March 2003 thought that by invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein, we were embarking on an eight-year occupation" of Iraq, Burns said. He said that although he believed in the necessity of the mission, the administration likewise didn't imagine they were launching a 13-year war in Afghanistan.

What is the takeaway from a lesson that emphasizes unpredictability? Burns said we're simply not able "to know with precision what the consequences of our actions are." We must realize that using force is a "combustible event."

An American soldier throws a hand grenade in battle during World War I on March 15, 1918. (Photo: AP)

3. History should be remembered

Since 1945, the major powers in the world have not gone to war with one another — even at the peak of the Cold War.

"That's some kind of accomplishment," Kennedy said. "And we shouldn't forget what a positive accomplishment that is and what's enabled it."

Perhaps the biggest reason for this — and why a war on the scale of World War I is unlikely to occur again — is the advent of nuclear weapons and the reality that, if war broke out between two major powers, the consequences could be unlike any the world has ever seen.

Just because it's unlikely doesn't mean it's impossible.

"There's always the danger of accidents and miscalculations getting people in places where they don't want to be," Nye said.

Memories of the destruction that can be caused by global conflict can fade as time passes — certainly after 100 years. There are no living veterans of World War I the last died in 2012. No one who was there can tell the world what it was like at Verdun or the Marne or the Somme and what we should learn. We can rely only on history.

"There's a danger that these events become so distant in our memories they become abstract," Burns said, adding that's why it's vital to study history.

The milestone anniversary being marked and the attention it brings to how World War I unfolded may remind people that it would be a mistake to assume it couldn't happen again.

Ultimately, it may depend on the mindsets of the leaders we choose and whether they choose to follow the lessons of history.

"Some leaders study history and bring to the responsibilities of leadership a real sense of history. Others do not," Sargent said.

History has shown that one cannot assume a lesson — even one from war — will remain in the collective consciousness forever.

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