"The Great War was without precedent ... never had so many nations taken up arms at a single time. Never had the battlefield been so vastů never had the fighting been so gruesome..."
The World War of 1914-18 - The Great War, as contemporaries called it -- was the first man-made catastrophe of the 20th century. Historians can easily identify the literal "smoking gun" that set the War in motion: a revolver used by a Serbian nationalist to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne) in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.
German battleship Kaiser, Kiel, Germany
But scholars are still debating the underlying causes. Was it the desire for greater empire, wealth and territory? A massive arms race? The series of treaties which ensured that once one power went to war, all of Europe would quickly follow? Was it social turmoil and changing artistic sensibilities brought about by the Industrial Revolution? Or was it simply a miscalculation by rulers and generals in power? The answer provided in "The Great War and The Shaping of the 20th Century" is that all of these volatile elements combined to set off a gigantic explosion we now know as World War I.
"World War I marked the first use of chemical weapons, the first mass bombardment of civilians from the sky, and the century's first genocide..."
True to the military alliances, Europe's powers quickly drew up sides after the assassination. The allies -- chiefly Russia, France and Britain -- were pitted against the Central Powers -- primarily Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. Eventually, the War spread beyond Europe as the warring continent turned to its colonies and friends for help. This included the United States, which joined the War in 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson called on Americans to "make the world safe for democracy."
American soldiers in trench
Most of the leaders in 1914 had no real idea of the war machine they were putting into motion. Many believed the War would be over by Christmas 1914. But by the end of the first year, a new kind of war emerged on the battlefield that had never been seen before -- or repeated since: total war-producing stalemate, the result of a war that went on for 1,500 days. Before the official Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, nine million people had died on the battlefield and the world was forever changed.
Top Photo: Soldiers patrolling near Ypres
Quotes: Jay Winter & Blaine Baggett, The Great War, And the Shaping of the 20th Century