Nov. 11 will be the 100th anniversary of the ending of the First World War. Here’s how it unfolded.
Battle of the Marne
The First World War could have been just another European war: German armies sweep into Paris, the French surrender, a peace treaty is worked out and the war is indeed over by Christmas. Had this happened, the world would have been spared the four years of bloodshed that ensued, and for Canada, not a single soldier would have been needed in Europe. Instead, the Germans were repulsed at the Battle of the Marne, unwittingly signing the death warrant for millions.
The opening weeks of the First World War had been fought in the open: Great armies smashing into each other in farmers’ fields just as they had done for centuries. But on Sept. 15, 1914 stalemated British and German armies began digging for cover at positions in Northern France. The trenches would endure for four years, stretch from the North Sea to Alsace on the Swiss border and cover some 56,000 kilometres.
Airplanes had only been intended as reconnaissance devices. Incredibly, in the first days of the First World War enemy pilots (who often knew each other from pre-war European flying meet-ups) would even wave as they passed. On Oct. 5, 1914 this era definitively ended when a French pilot shot down a German plane. And this wasn’t a case of blazing away at a faceless enemy: The Frenchman pulled out his rifle and shot the German pilot directly.
The last gasp of civility on the Western Front. Sparked by the spirit of Christmas Day, German and British troops met in No Man’s Land, sang carols, shared alcohol and food, and even played a soccer game. When senior officers later heard what happened they were horrified. And by 1915 the hatreds would be too deep, and the losses too great, for any shared humanity with the Germans.
Spanish flu case
Under normal circumstances, the particularly virulent flu that swept through a Kansas hospital in early 1917 would have been an epidemiological footnote. But occurring as it did during the largest movement of humanity ever known, the Spanish Flu would spread like prairie fire and kill more people than the war that spawned it. Targeting the young in particular, there’s no telling how many future leaders or innovators it claimed.
With a few small bombs exploding in seaside British towns on Jan 19, 1915, the era of strategic bombing had begun. German zeppelins weren’t bombing troops or military targets: This was terror bombing designed to scare Britain out of the war. It didn’t work, but the idea of “breaking the morale of a population” through bombing would go on to kill millions before the century was out.
Use of poison gas
Canadian and French troops were the ones who suffered with the first large-scale use of poison gas — chlorine — on April 22, 1915 at the Battle of Second Ypres. Within minutes 5,000 soldiers were dead. This was the point at which any semblance of war as a glorious man-to-man struggle ended. Men were now eradicated with human insecticide.
Battle of Verdun
This was where the First World War began to transform from an unusually costly conflict into a full-fledged nightmare. Tens of thousands of men thrown into battle for little or no result. Troops forced to live among the piled corpses of their dead, drink from green puddles and go mad from constant shelling. All these images became solidified at the Battle of Verdun between Feb. and Dec 1916.
Battle of the Somme
July 1, 1916, one of the most infamous days of the war. The opening of the Battle of the Somme saw 100,000 Allied men — including Newfoundlanders — sent “over the top” to take German trenches. The Germans simply mowed them down with machine-gun fire. A total of 19,240 were killed — it was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. The next five months would see a million soldiers die from all sides.
It is perhaps the most staggering diplomatic cockup in history: German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann sent Mexico a missive asking them to declare war on the United States. On Jan. 16, 1917, British codebreakers deciphered the encrypted message. It was later sent to the U.S. and caused uproar. The act was so brazen it drove a skeptical U.S. into the war in April, 1917.
Lenin in Russia
Amid news of spontaneous revolution in Russia, Germany arranged for Vladimir Lenin to be sent home to his country in a sealed train. Their idea, which turned out to be very prescient, was that Lenin would hijack the revolution and end Russia’s war with Germany, which happened late in 1917. But the move unleashed a tide of communist sentiment that would ultimately come for Germany itself.
Capture of Jerusalem
It was only a sideshow to the greater war, but the British captured Jerusalem and the future territory of Israel from the Ottoman Empire in Dec. 1917. British Major T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — said, “For me [it] was the supreme moment of the war.” The city’s capture, along with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, would largely set the stage for the Middle East we know today.
At multiple points throughout the war it was a tossup over who would win. The Spring Offensive in March, 1918, was Germany’s attempt to score a knockout blow before the Americans became an effective fighting force. But initial German success soon became bogged down and they ended up with 800,000 soldiers killed or wounded.
Germany falls apart
By late 1918, the German nation was subjected to waves of mutinies, protests and mini-revolutions. Its army was defeated, its navy refused to fight, its people were starving and the Kaiser had abdicated. Aware that future fighting was hopeless, Germany agreed to an armistice that came into effect on Nov. 11, 1918.
Illustrations by Mike Faille