Many countries involved in the first modern conflict

July 30, 2014   ·   0 Comments

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, it’s important to remember the contributions by many in far-away lands. Historian and author Gavin Watt has offered to provide pieces on different aspects of the Great War.

By Gavin Watt
Although the Great War was a monstrous human tragedy, there are some interesting aspects that encourage study.
As the world’s first massive industrialized conflict, the war was memorialized in incredible depth by photography which allows straightforward investigation of its complexities and reveals the fact that there was a greater number of countries involved in a single war than ever before in world history.
Six “empires” were involved in the First World War, which included many of the countries are recognized as separate entities today. Of the monarchies, the gigantic Russian empire of the Romanov dynasty included Finland; the three Baltic states; Poland; Moldova; Ukraine; Georgia; Armenia, and the many “Stans” to name a few. The Russian empire had a massive population of 160 million souls and could field the largest army of all the belligerents.
The British Empire included Great Britain and Ireland; many islands of the West Indies and colonies in Central and South America; in South Asia (eg. India, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka); in China; in Africa (eg. Egypt; Nigeria; Rhodesia, and South Africa; Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and Canada. Britain’s population was 45 million and her colonies 390 million.
The German Hohenzollern Empire began to assemble colonies long after the French, Dutch, British, Spanish and Portuguese had done so. In Africa, its primary colonies were East Africa (Ruwanda, Tanzania, Burundi) and South West Africa (Namibia), Cameroon and Togoland. In the South Pacific, the Germans held the Mariana, Caroline, Paulu and Marshall Islands, Samoa and German New Guinea.  In 1914, the population of Germany was 65 million and her colonies 15 million.
The Hapsburg Austrian-Hungarian empire included Austria; Hungary; Czech Republic; Slovakia; Slovenia; Croatia, part of Romania called Transylvania, and Bosnia-Herzegovina in which fourteen distinct languages were spoken. The population of the empire immediately before the outbreak of war was 53 million. Although often presented as being on the verge of collapse, this complex empire was remarkably well run in a conservative fashion and quite robust.
The ancient, multilingual and multinational Ottoman Empire had been founded in the 13th century and at its height controlled much of southeast Europe, western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, a former Ottoman satellite. The empire then lost a war with Italy over control of Libya in 1911 and lost a second war in 1912-13 against a Balkan League of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro. Yet, the Ottoman Empire still held sway over 28 million people, of whom 15.5 million were in modern-day Turkey, 4.5 million in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, and 2.5 million in Iraq. Another 5.5 million people were under its nominal rule in the Arabian Peninsula.
Like Germany, the kingdom of Italy had belatedly set out to collect colonies and annexed Eritrea, Somalia and Libya in Africa. The country had its eye on expansion in former regions now occupied by Austria and around the Adriatic. It had a population of 35 million and its colonies, 2.2 million.
The Third French Republic controlled a large empire in Africa (eg. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Chad, Madagascar), the Caribbean (eg. Haiti, Martinique), Asia (eg. VietNam, Cambodia, Laos), and the South Pacific. The population of metropolitan France was 39 million with another 58 million living in her colonies. France had been traumatized by her defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and was eager to recover her lost provinces and gain a measure of revenge.
A second major republic was the United States of America. With a population of 99 million, and massive resources and industrial base, the U.S. would tip the balance of the war when it reluctantly entered the conflict in 1917.
As war drew nearer, two alliances maintained a rough balance of power in Europe and across the globe. The first was a complicated arrangement known as the Triple Entente between Russia, Britain and France, three countries that had often been at each other’s throats over the centuries. The second alliance was between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, countries that had also been at odds in times past. This grouping was known as the Central Powers.
In addition to these alliances and a cobweb of other treaties, there were influences that played key roles in triggering the war. For example, Russia’s assumed guardianship of all Slavic nations and France and Britain’s guarantee of Belgian neutrality.
When a Serbian national executed the heir to the Hapsburg throne in June 1914, Austria-Hungary retaliated and attacked Serbia on July 28. Two days later, Russia entered the conflict to protect its fellow Slavic country, which a day later brought Germany to war. Affairs quickly escalated through various treaties and guarantees and, when Germany launched an attack against France by advancing through Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany, then eight days later on Austria-Hungary. Despite its alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, for complex reasons Italy chose to remain aloof in these opening phases.
The various empires called for mobilization in their colonies. Japan acknowledged a naval treaty with Britain and entered the war in August, seizing Germany’s Pacific island chains at the same time as New Zealand occupied Samoa. In November, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. In a short time, much of the world was at war, and over the following four years, participation expanded at an astonishing rate as Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Portugal, the United States, Greece and a host of smaller countries followed suit.



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