The First World War massively changed the way we approach and manage conflicts, particularly from one tribe securing and expanding their own territories to forming alliances with other like-minded civilizations to protect and maintain the ideologies and lifestyles they ought to abide by. It also set a prime example of what warfare would look like if more than two forces were involved in fighting and how drastic it could affect the outcome of waging war. While there are many other examples where a battlefield became a melting pot for different individuals fighting for one objective in mind, we’ll be using World War I (WWI) in examining the cultural fusions that occurred in Europe’s most iconic battles and how they influenced conflict outcomes.
As you all know, WWI broke out because of the assassination of one man, who was not just any man but the heir to the Austria-Hungry throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip. From there, tensions went into overdrive among the powerhouses of Europe in the summer of 1914, which led to the outbreak of the dreaded Great War. Unlike previous warfares, this time, multiple powerful Empires bonded together to pit against each other.
After receiving assurance from Germany that it would render support and alliance, Austria-Hungary sent Serbia a ridiculous ultimatum to force the latter to either surrender or fight. When Serbia didn’t submit to its harsh conditions, the dual monarchy declared war, ultimately severing the peace treaty between Europe’s great powers, and within a week, Russia, Belgium, France, and Great Britain (and its colonized nations) all rallied behind Serbia as the Allied Powers against the Centrals Powers consisted of Austria-Hungary and Germany.
The fighting between these alliances had caused horrendous destruction and massive casualties, and generational traumas, as well as technological inventions and innovations in the defense industry that made it well into the 21st century.
The combined strengths of French and British soldiers significantly impacted the outcome in the earliest months of WWI, coupled with Russian forces’ movements in the eastern region that compelled Germany’s invasion in the west to be more challenging than initially anticipated.
The First Battle of Marne (5-12 September 1914) was among the first major, iconic battles fought on the Western Front that almost cost France its northeastern region to the Germans, who successfully penetrated about 30 miles of Paris before pushing them back up to the north of the Aisne River. This would prevent the German Army from further invading the French capital, but it would also mark the official start of the destructive warfare that would soon follow.
As reinforcements from the British Army came to aid the French, the warring on the Western Front went into a stalemate, ensuing a trench-digging race for each side to protect themselves from the never-ending firefighting. Not to mention that the Germans bought with them their then-latest weapons in their arsenal, which first demonstrated firepower when they assaulted the heavily fortified city of neutral Belgium to reach France quickly. The annihilation of the town in its civilians pushed Brussels to join the war, adding more strength to the Allied Powers and more enemies to the Central Powers.
The absolute abomination of German machine guns and siege cannons brought into the eerie no man’s land has pushed the Allied Powers to rely on technology more than ever. Revolutionary inventions such as barbed wires, tanks, and armored vehicles emerged during this period and have become an integral part of modern warfare. The earlier creation of the Wright brothers also paved the way for aerial reconnaissance and combat, which the British forces used to their advantage in pushing Germany off France. Meanwhile, the terrorizing U-boat submarines of the Germans had effectively threatened the years-long naval domination of Great Britain, forcing the latter to innovate further to maintain their reign. In the end, however, it exhausted its fleet strength and an opportunity for another rising naval powerhouse to take over—the US Navy.
Other major battles that transpired during Western Front’s trench warfare included the Battle of Verdun (21 February – 18 December 1916) and the Battle of Somme (1 July 1 – 18 November 1916), which caused millions of casualties from both sides, particularly in the Battle of Verdun. It was the longest, costliest campaign in WWI that almost defeated the French Army due to the unprecedented bombardment from the Germans. They, however, stood their ground and maintained defense and counteroffensive in the frontlines until the summer of 1916, when German troops were forced to reduce their strength and sent after the British and Russians, who both launched their own offensives elsewhere. This gave France breathing air and an opportunity to reclaim lost territories by autumn.
Nevertheless, they had lost so many men, which meant that any succeeding large-scale offensives to overthrow the Germans out of their homeland would need other allies to step in on their behalf to fill in the gap of strength—leading Britains and its colonized countries to be at the helm of the action in the Western Front.
The abundance of comprehensive demographic, military and industrial resources, and capability to transport weapons and troops faster paved the winning chance of the Allied Powers compared to the Central, whose allies lived quite far off the main theater of the war and/or struggled with mobilization. Not to mention, the British blockade had choked the flow of resources in Germany—though this was compensated through its chemical industry that made up for the lack of materials it needed and, unfortunately, paved the way for the toxic gas to become biochemical weapons. On the other hand, despite the vast ocean in between, America eased into the war, considering that it already had an adequate naval fleet and the ability to ferry soldiers across Europe and had tremendously tipped the balance.
Since Central Powers were based near the Eastern Front, troop mobilization was far faster than deploying soldiers in the west. However, Russian forces were incredibly more mobile as they were notoriously known as the “war machine” and had managed to launch a counterattack against the German Amry, who attempted to cross borders. The former instead claimed over the German-controlled regions of East Prussia and Poland but was shortly halted when German reinforcements from the Western Front, in addition to Austrian forces, arrived—resulting in a week of fighting at Tannenberg (26-30 August 1914).
While Germany prevailed in the Battle of Tannenberg, their plan to end the war sooner was totally obliterated. Russia still had the forces and resources it needed to launch another massive attack, and Germany’s Western Front offensive was defeated by the fierce resistance of the Franco-British armies.
Internal conflicts in Russia caused by its 1917 Revolution soon caught up and disrupted its participation in the Great War, in addition to its struggling economy and food scarcity. By December, the czarist rule in Moscow ended, and along with it, its involvement in the WWI effort and with the signed armistice with the Central Powers, German prisoners of war (POWs) were freed—some sent back to the battlefield in the Western Front.
Another worth mentioning battle that highlighted cultural fusion was the Gallipoli Campaign (19 February 1915 – 9 January 1916). As the war on the Western Front went to a stalemate, the rest of the Allied Powers tried to score a win against the Ottoman Empire. The latter officially announced siding with the Central Powers in late 1914 when it carried out a surprise attack on Russia’s Black Sea coast in the fall. Around this time, the Empire had been on a decline, and while it initially stayed neutral, it concluded that joining the Germans would revive its glory.
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Ottoman Turks fought fiercely, especially when the Allied Powers—composed of British forces and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC)—tried to invade the Gallipoli Peninsula. Mirroring the stalemate in the Western Front, the Gallipoli Campaign also fell into trench warfare until finally, the Ottoman forces decisively won and, for a moment, had a respite in its declining regime.
As the curtains of WWI drew to a close, the combined troops of British and Russia would eventually defeat the Ottoman, coupled with an Arab revolt that made it much harder to recuperate from the loss.
America Joins the Chaos
The bombardment of German U-boats against American cargo and civilian ships catapulted the latter to ultimately join the WWI bandwagon after holding neutral ground for as long as possible—further increasing the strength of the Allied Powers.
At this period, each side of the belligerents was already exhausted, with resources nearing naught and millions of casualties on both fronts. The participation of the United States meant replenishing resources and manpower in the alliance and another day of bitter fighting for the enemies. British and German naval warfare expanded into aerial combat with the introduction of warplanes, a modification initially started by the US.
Moreover, the American troops’ timing of involvement couldn’t be more perfect, as the Germans were about to launch a large-scale offensive on the Western Front. The additional strength gave the Allied Powers the advantage to decisively emerge victorious at the onset of the Second Battle of Marne (15 July – 6 August 1918) and ultimately end WWI.
These were some of the highlights, but the Great War definitely had many iconic, horrendously history-defining moments that shifted the way civilization fought in warfare. It demonstrated not only what advanced technology can do on the battlefield but also what multiple alliances can accomplish that a single unit of forces cannot. Brainstorming military tactics across cultures resulted in a new mix of strategies, as well as improvements to existing tools and weapons or even innovation.
While conflicting cultures catapulted nations into the Great War, cultural fusions ironically were the reason for its end—but certainly not the last.
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