World War I
In the late 1800s and early 1900s rivalries between European powers began to intensify. Imperialist states were fighting over land in Asia and Africa, ethnic groups were struggling for self-control, and nations were competing to build larger and more powerful military forces. In addition the region had developed a system of alliances in which nations would help each other out in disputes.
In 1914 a Serbian nationalist shot and killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which proved to be the spark that set off World War I. As tensions mounted between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, Germany (which was allied with Austria-Hungary) declared war on Russia (which was allied with Serbia). Germany expanded the conflict when it declared war on France and marched into Belgium to reach France, thus breaking an 1839 neutrality agreement. Great Britain declared war on Germany that same day. Other nations joined the fray, and eventually Europe was divided between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied forces (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and dozens of other nations).
The western front of the war stretched along eastern France, while the eastern front saw battles deep into Russia. Fighting also took place in the location of present-day Turkey, as well as in the North Sea. In 1916 the war in the west and the war at sea had reached a stalemate. However, early in 1917, Germany decided to use unrestricted submarine warfare and also sent a secret telegram to Mexico proposing an alliance against the United States. In April 1917 the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies.
In 1918 the Russians signed a separate peace treaty with the Central Powers. To many people, this signaled that the war would last years longer. Germany withdrew its troops from the eastern front and launched an attack on Allied lines in France. They came within 37 miles of Paris, France’s capital; however, the thousands of American troops that were arriving every month helped hold them back. The Allies launched a counteroffensive in July 1918. At the same time, the Central Powers were crumbling. Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire surrendered, and a revolution in Austria-Hungary brought the Hapsburg Empire to an end. Austria and Hungary formed separate governments and stopped fighting. The German government collapsed in November 1918. On November 11, 1918, an armistice was signed ending World War I.
The War in France
The western front of the war stretched through eastern France. The Allies stopped the first German advance in September 1914. In the First Battle of the Marne, French troops launched a counterattack. After this battle, both the French and German armies prepared to hold their ground. They resorted to a strategy known as trench warfare in which each side defends its position by fighting from the protection of deep ditches. Two massive systems of trenches stretched for 400 miles along the western front. The area between opposing trenches, known as noman’ s-land, varied in width from about 200 to 1,000 yards. Each side made little progress. In the battle of the Somme, which lasted from July through November 1915, the Allies were only able to force the Germans to retreat by a few miles. Another battle at Verdun lasted for ten months. In these two battles alone, almost one million soldiers died.
By the time the Americans arrived in Europe in 1917, German troops were occupying parts of France and Belgium. American units joined the Allies along the western front and were instrumental in keeping the German forces outside of Paris. The Second Battle of the Marne, fought in the summer of 1918, marked the turning point of the war. Allied forces began to force the German retreat from France. By the time the armistice was signed in November 1918, Germany occupied only a tiny portion of French land.
British society underwent significant changes in the 1910s and 1920s. The discrepancies between the lifestyles of the rich and poor were far less evident than they had been previously. Fewer people had servants, poorer people had access to the same goods as the wealthy, and the middle-class came to hold greater political power. Many homes had modern amenities, such as electricity and plumbing. By the end of the decade, class distinctions had become notably less important in determining social groupings, even marriages.
World War I also engendered important changes. Millions of women entered the workforce, finding employment in government and private offices and in factories. Such increased economic opportunities contributed to women’s emancipation, and by 1918, the Franchise Act gave all women over the age of twenty-eight the right to vote.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Saki, Published by Gale, 2002.