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Overview: The First World War


The First World War was fought across Europe, European colonies and the surrounding seas between August 1st 1914 and November 11th 1918. Contemporaries called it The Great War because it was literally greater than any waged before: over 59 million troops were mobilised, over 8 million died and over 29 million were injured in a struggle which sharply altered the political, economic, social and cultural nature of Europe. 'Ripples' were felt across the world as nations from every (non-polar) continent entered the war.

Effects of the First World War
The economic and political effects were so great that World War One marks the start of the modern era. Book after book will basically make the same point: that the European economies wrecked each other while passing their capital to an emerging America, a process continued during the World War Two. The centuries old Russian Empire was torn down and replaced with a socialist, then Stalinist, system which led to the death of millions. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the surviving relic of the millennia old Holy Roman Empire, ceased to exist, as did the relatively new German Empire and the maps of Eastern Europe and the Middle East were redrawn in a manner which still causes conflict.

Socialism erupted as a major political force thanks to the Russian revolutions, while Imperialism began to fall out of vogue. Perhaps even more remarkably a strong desire to avoid more conflict and loss – to make it 'The War To End All Wars' – arose, prompting many nations to try and solve international disputes via the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations.

The society of every warring European nation changed: in Britain the class system altered as the lower class consciousness evolved; in France, a generation of men was lost; in Eastern Europe people found themselves in new young nations and Germany coped with forging a non-imperial identity. War changed too as the lessons of the industrial age were applied to weapons but not, initially, to tactics. Machine guns, tanks, aircraft and chemical weapons were all refined and used with deadly effect.

Cultural Impact
The cultural impact of the war is the aspect most obviously still with us. Poets, writers and other people capable of expressing their experiences have left a body of passionate, dark and stirring work which has dominated our popular memory. For most in the West, The First War One conjures up images of muddy trenches, thousands of young men walking into machine gun fire and the sense of wasted youth. Despite the efforts of a small group of historians to argue otherwise, World War One is seen as a waste. The physical injuries suffered by soldiers from gas and shell fed the imaginations of the 1920's and 30's cinematic horror boom; there are relatively few films about The Great War, but plenty fed by its consequences.

The First World War can be an immensely depressing subject, especially when explained by writers who argue it ended in a manner which made World War Two inevitable. But historians and students should never forget a view available in the letters and documents of the men who fought, proud men who believed strongly in the cause and did not regard their efforts as a waste. This is not to say readers should seek out a history which comforts them, rather than convincing them, but they should strive for an accurate picture: the sum total of all World War One casualties was less than those suffered by Russia alone during the Second World War, yet it is the first war we in the West always remember as most horrific.

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