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1917: U.S. troops wear masks to protect themselves against a gas attack.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.6,RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.8, RI.6-8.9, SL.6-8.1,W.6-8.1, W.6-8.3

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.2, Civ.3, Civ.14, His.2, His.3, His.14, His.15

NCSS: Time, continuity, and change; Global connections

WORLD  WAR I

“There’s No One Here But the Dead!”

Millions of people were killed, mighty empires fell, and the globe was remade during World War I. It was a conflict with consequences we continue to struggle with today.

In one moment, the world stopped and began again. On November 11, 1918, at exactly

11 a.m. Paris time, bells rang and celebrations broke out all over the globe. After four years and millions of deaths, World War I was over. 

The timing had been laid out in an armistice—an agreement to stop fighting—written by the war’s victors. They were called the Allied Powers. Led by France, the United Kingdom (U.K.), and the United States, the Allies had forced their defeated enemy, Germany, to sign the agreement. 

The conflict it ended was so massive, people referred to it simply as the Great War. Up to that point in history, it was the bloodiest war ever. About 20 million people—both soldiers and civilians—were killed. France alone lost 1.7 million soldiers in battle, 17 percent of all the country’s fighting-age men. 

“Europe lost those who might have been its scientists, its poets, and its leaders,” historian Margaret MacMillan has written of the conflict. “And the children who might have been born to them.” 

This November 11, bells will again ring around the world to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The war continues to influence our world. Here are some essential things to know about it.

The world stopped and began again in one moment. On November 11, 1918, at exactly 11 a.m. Paris time, bells rang. Celebrations broke out all over the globe. After four years and millions of deaths, World War I was over.

The timing had been laid out in an armistice. (An armistice is an agreement to stop fighting.) It was written by the war’s victors. They were called the Allied Powers. The Allies were led by France, the United Kingdom (U.K.), and the United States. They had forced their defeated enemy, Germany, to sign the agreement.

The conflict it ended was so huge, people referred to it simply as the Great War. Up to that point in history, it was the bloodiest war ever. About 20 million people were killed. That included both soldiers and civilians. France alone lost 1.7 million soldiers in battle, 17 percent of all the country’s fighting-age men.

“Europe lost those who might have been its scientists, its poets, and its leaders,” historian Margaret MacMillan has written of the conflict. “And the children who might have been born to them.”

This November 11, bells will again ring around the world to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The war continues to influence our world. Here are some key things to know about it.

1. The war introduced deadly new weapons.

The war began in July 1914 as a struggle for power between two groups of European nations: the Allied Powers—first led by Russia, France, and the U.K.—and the Central Powers, headed by Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, centered in what is now Turkey (see map, below).  

Few people could have predicted that so many soldiers would be killed. A main reason for the historic loss of life, say experts, was the introduction of deadly new weapons. Among these were machine guns and artillery—large guns that shot heavy shells—which could fire more rapidly than before. Poison gas was also used for the first time in World War I. 

For protection, troops on both sides dug long ditches in the ground called trenches and used them to take cover. Soldiers sometimes stayed in them for weeks or months. 

The war began in July 1914 as a struggle for power between two groups of European nations. On one side were the Allied Powers, first led by Russia, France, and the U.K. On the other side were the Central Powers, headed by Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, centered in what is now Turkey (see map, below).

Few people could have predicted that so many soldiers would be killed. Experts say a main reason for the historic loss of life was the introduction of deadly new weapons. Among them were machine guns and artillery, which are large guns that shoot heavy shells. These weapons could fire more rapidly than before. Poison gas was also used for the first time in World War I.

Troops on both sides dug long ditches in the ground called trenches. They used them to take cover for protection. Soldiers sometimes stayed in trenches for weeks or months.

Poison gas was used for the first time in World War I. The gas could cause blindness, blistered skin, and scarred lungs.

By the end of 1914, the opposing armies had created an almost unbroken battle line of parallel trenches that stretched from the coast of Belgium to Switzerland. This 450-mile-long line of trenches was called the Western Front. 

In letters home, soldiers described the brutal reality of life in the trenches: mud up to their knees, rats as large as cats, and the horrible smell of overflowing toilets. 

When ordered to attack, soldiers rushed out of their trenches onto open ground. As they charged the opposing trenches, waves of men would be mowed down by enemy fire. Despite the high death count, battles often resulted in little or no gain of territory. Afterward, bodies sometimes remained where they had fallen. There was no safe way to retrieve them.

French soldier Louis Barthas recalled stumbling upon a gruesome scene while searching an abandoned enemy trench. “I saw . . . a pile of corpses, almost all of them German, that they had started to bury right in the trench. . . . ‘There’s no one here but the dead!’ I exclaimed.”

By the end of 1914, the opposing armies had created an almost unbroken battle line of parallel trenches. They stretched from the coast of Belgium to Switzerland. This 450-mile-long line of trenches was called the Western Front.

Soldiers described the brutal reality of life in the trenches in letters home. They mentioned mud up to their knees, rats as large as cats, and the horrible smell of dirty toilets.

When ordered to attack, soldiers rushed out of their trenches onto open ground. As they charged the opposing trenches, waves of men would be mowed down by enemy fire. Even with a high death count, battles often resulted in little or no gain of territory. Bodies sometimes remained where they had fallen. There was no safe way to go get them.

Louis Barthas was a French soldier. He recalled stumbling upon a gruesome scene while searching an abandoned enemy trench. “I saw . . . a pile of corpses, almost all of them German, that they had started to bury right in the trench. . . . ‘There’s no one here but the dead!’ I exclaimed.”

2. The U.S. didn’t want to get involved.

When the war began, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson pledged the country to neutrality. But from the start, many Americans felt the U.S. should fight alongside the U.K. and France because of our strong historical ties to those countries. 

Then, on May 7, 1915, a German submarine sank a British passenger ship called the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Among the 1,200 civilians who died, 128 were Americans. “What the Lusitania did was to bring the war home to Americans,” historian John Cooper has said. Suddenly, that foreign conflict felt like our own.

Still, it took nearly two more years—and the steady worsening of the U.S.-German relationship—for America to enter the fight. On April 6, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. The Germans were waging “a warfare against mankind,” Wilson said. “The world must be made safe for democracy.”

When the war began, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson pledged the country to neutrality. Many Americans felt the U.S. should fight alongside the U.K. and France from the start because of our strong historical ties to those countries.

On May 7, 1915, a German submarine sank a British passenger ship called the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Among the 1,200 civilians who died, 128 were Americans. “What the Lusitania did was to bring the war home to Americans,” historian John Cooper has said. That foreign conflict suddenly felt like our own.

It took nearly two more years, and the steady decline of the U.S.-German relationship, for America to enter the fight. On April 6, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. The Germans were waging “a warfare against mankind,” Wilson said. “The world must be made safe for democracy.”

Photo12/UIG via Getty Images

Mud, rats, and disease were part of life in the WWI trenches. Today, people say  “I’m down in the trenches” to describe very difficult conditions.

3. U.S. troops helped save the day.

In June 1917, American soldiers began arriving in Europe. The people of Britain and France, devastated by years of fighting, cheered the young Americans who marched through their streets on the way to the battlefront.

Those fresh American troops helped turn the war around for the Allies. In July 1918, U.S. forces joined with British and French troops to push back the Germans at the Second Battle of the Marne. The battle proved to be the last major stand for an exhausted Germany.

By early November, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, who were fighting the Allies on the war’s Eastern Front, had surrendered. Then Germany, the last of the Central Powers, agreed to a peace settlement. 

In June 1917, American soldiers began to arrive in Europe. The people of Britain and France were devastated by years of fighting. They cheered the young Americans who marched through their streets on the way to the battlefront.

Those fresh American troops helped turn the war around for the Allies. In July 1918, U.S. forces joined with British and French troops. They pushed back the Germans at the Second Battle of the Marne. The battle proved to be the last major stand for a tired Germany.

Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were fighting the Allies on the war’s Eastern Front. By early November, they had surrendered. Then Germany agreed to a peace settlement. It was the last of the Central Powers.

Europe During World War I

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

4. World War I remade the globe.

The war triggered the collapse of four powerful empires: Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. “Those dynasties had been there for centuries,” says Michael Neiberg of the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. “Now, in four years, they were gone.”

When it was all over, Germany was forced to accept blame for the war, give up about 10 percent of its territory, and severely reduce its military. The country was also forced to pay the Allied nations about $33 billion in damages.

These terms filled Germans with anger. In 1933, that rage helped fuel Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. In part seeking revenge for Germany’s humiliation in World War I, Hitler would eventually attempt to conquer Europe, plunging the globe into World War II.

The war triggered the collapse of four powerful empires: Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. “Those dynasties had been there for centuries,” says Michael Neiberg. He is from the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. “Now, in four years, they were gone.”

Germany was forced to accept blame for the war. It also had to give up about 10 percent of its territory and severely reduce its military. The country was forced to pay the Allied nations about $33 billion in damages.

Those terms filled Germans with anger. In 1933, that rage helped fuel Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Hitler was partly seeking revenge for Germany’s humiliation in World War I. He would eventually try to conquer Europe. That plunged the globe into World War II.

5. The U.S. became a global power.

One nation emerged from the war stronger: the U.S. With its industrial might and more than 2 million troops, America proved itself a powerful force and was transformed into a world leader. “That was the moment when the U.S. began to get involved in foreign affairs almost everywhere,” says Neiberg. 

Today, however, many Americans question whether the cost of being involved in conflicts around the world is too high. The Middle East is a prime example of this. Since 2001, America has battled terrorist armies in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2011, the fighting spread to Syria, fueling a civil war. Trillions of dollars and nearly 7,000 American deaths later, conflicts in all three countries continue.

Like past presidents, President Donald Trump and his advisers have questioned what to do. What can the U.S. hope to accomplish in foreign wars? Can the world ever truly be made safe for democracy?

According to Neiberg, “this is a debate that comes directly from World War I.” It’s one, he says, that we may never finish struggling with.

The U.S. emerged from the war stronger. With its industrial might and more than 2 million troops, America proved itself a powerful force. It changed into a world leader. “That was the moment when the U.S. began to get involved in foreign affairs almost everywhere,” says Neiberg.

Today, many Americans question whether the cost of being involved in conflicts around the world is too high. The Middle East is a key example of this. Since 2001, America has battled terrorist armies in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2011, the fighting spread to Syria. That fueled a civil war. Trillions of dollars and nearly 7,000 American deaths later, conflicts in all three countries continue.

Like past U.S. presidents, President Donald Trump and his advisers have questioned what to do. What can the U.S. hope to accomplish in foreign wars? Can the world ever truly be made safe for democracy?

According to Neiberg, “this is a debate that comes directly from World War I.” It is one, he says, that we may never finish struggling with.

Write About It! Using facts from the article, write a summary paragraph explaining why the U.S. joined World War I. 

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