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A look back at the ‘war to end all wars’

A historical image from World War 1.

A historical image from World War 1.


A historical image from World War 1.

The “war to end all wars” involved more than 70 million military personnel, the vast majority from Europe. An estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilians died as a direct result of the bloody battles, according to historians.

The war was believed to have helped spread the 1918 influenza epidemic, which caused 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

The trigger for the war was the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on June 28, 1914, by Bosnian revolutionary Gavrilo Princip, but the basis of the conflict went much deeper.

Tensions had already been brewing between nations with the rise of industrialism creating the need for new markets. The British empire extended over five continents by 1900 and France controlled large sectors of Africa.

That created rivalry with Germany, which also wanted to acquire colonies but held only small areas of Africa. There was also fierce competition between Britain and Germany for mastery of the seas.

Raising the stakes in an arms race between nations was the fact that numerous alliances had been signed between countries, which meant that all had to fight in any war declared by an ally.

Germany joined forces with Italy and Japan, which took on the allied forces of Britain, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, the Soviet Union and China.

At the outbreak of the war, the United States, taking an isolationist stance, declined to get involved in the conflict. However, when the German U-boat U-20 sank the RMS Lussitania, a British liner, on May 7, 1915, a breakdown in relations between the two countries began.

President Woodrow Wilson insisted that American was “too proud to fight” but demanded an end to attacks on passenger ships. Germany complied for a time but then resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in January of 1917, which resulted in the sinking of seven U.S. merchant ships.

In a telegram intercepted by the British and relayed to the U.S. embassy in London, Germany invited Mexico to join the war as an ally against America and recover the territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Wilson released the message to the American public, which was outraged. On April 2, 2017, the president called for war, which Congress declared four days later. Nearly 3 million men were drafted and, by summer 1918, the U.S. was sending 10,000 fresh soldiers to France every day.

In 1917, Congress granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans, which allowed them to fight in the war.

Germany’s stated assumption that it would defeat the allied forces before American troops reinforced their ranks was proven incorrect.

An armistice with Germany was signed at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, so it is traditional to commemorate that event on what is now known as Veterans’ Day, “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

During the six hours between the signing of the armistice and its taking effect, opposing armies on the Western Front in Europe began to withdraw from their positions, but battles continued in many areas as commanders hurried to capture territory.

The formal treaty to end the war was not signed until June 28, 1919. The U.S. did not ratify that treaty and did not end its involvement in the war until a resolution to that effect was signed on July 2, 1921, by President Warren Harding.

Unresolved rivalries at the end of the war would contribute to the start of World War II about 20 years later.


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