All You Need to Know

The First World War still prompts debate. Here we set out to answer some of the basic questions about the conflict – and give a flavour of the controversies that still rage.

What were the causes?

  • European powers were locked in a series of intensifying rivalries. Germany was determined its forces would match those of Russia to the east and France to the west, and was envious of the might of the Royal Navy. The same powers also had colonial ambitions, with Germany, a newcomer to the scene, eager to build an empire. The rivalries led to an explosive mix making conflict more likely.

What did the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand have to do with it?

  • Heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, he was killed on June 28 1914 while visiting Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, part of the empire. His assassin was Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb and a Serb nationalist, who resented Austro-Hungarian rule. Austro Hungary - an ally of Germany's - blamed Serbia for the assassination and declared war on it, triggering a series of similar acts by other countries linked by a web of treaties, alliances and agreements.

Who else was involved in the First World War?

  • Russia came to the defence of Serbia. Germany leapt to the defence of Austria. France, an ally of Tsarist Russia, joined in. Germany responded by attacking France via Belgium. Britain responded by declaring war on Germany. Within 37 days all the main players were at war: Germany and Austro-Hungary, allied with Turkey and Bulgaria, opposing the British empire, France and Russia - who were joined by the US in 1917.

How many people died?

  • Britain and its empire lost around a million men. Numbers of casualties are still a matter of debate, with some estimates putting the total lost at more than 15 million.

Why was the toll so high?

  • It was the first major war to be fought on an industrial scale with both sides harnessing their manufacturing sectors to produce huge quantities of armaments. All the major players also organised mass mobilisations as more and more soldiers were thrown forward in a bid to break the stalemate.

Was it a "just war" or a case of lions led by donkeys?

  • This question cannot be settled here. Some argue Britain had no choice but to go to war and little choice over how to fight and win it. Others claim Britain's involvement was not inevitable and that, once fighting was under way, the country's political and military leaders were too willing to sacrifice the lives of troops in a war of attrition.

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