The First World War

The Great War Mystery

How did a European war turn into the First World War?

Just the Facts


A Japanese and British Soldier Celebrate Their Capture of Tsing Tao, China, from German Forces, November 1914

Who and When? In August 1914, two European coalitions stumbled into war. On one side were the Central Powers: the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Quickly they were joined by non-European Turkey and later by a third European (Balkan) nation, Bulgaria. Facing them was the Triple Entente, comprised of Russia, France and Great Britain and her empire, plus Belgium, Luxembourg, Serbia and Montenegro. Through the course of the war a number of other European powers found it in their interests to enlist with the Allies, including Italy, Rumania, Portugal and Greece. From the beginning, France and Great Britain utilized troops from their empires first to defend their colonial possessions around the world from Africa through Asia to the Pacific Ocean and, second, to provide manpower in the main combat arena on the Western Front in France as well as in the Middle East. Even at the start, participation in the Great War was trans-European. Furthermore, some non-European nations quickly decided that the hostilities amongst the European powers either threatened them in some way or provided an opportunity for growth or revitalization. The Young Turks dominating the declining Ottoman Empire decided to join the Central Powers in 1914, thus spreading the war to the Middle East. Japan, seeing opportunities to expand, joined the Allies in 1914 and went into action quickly in the Pacific Basin and on the Asian mainland. Italy, also ambitious for territory, joined them in 1915. Even China eventually sent volunteers to the Western Front. Most important, the United States decided in April 1917 to fight alongside the Allies as an “Associated Power.”


Camel-Mounted German Troops, South West Africa, 1914

Where and How? Fighting took place beyond European shores from the war’s start. Naval actions and battles were fought in all the major oceans: Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean and Indian in 1914. Early colonial battles were fought in southern Africa and in China at Tsing Tao. Japan seized many of the Pacific islands that would become battlefields in the Second World War including the Marianas, Carolines and Marshall Islands. In 1915, the Ottoman Empire found itself fighting a three-front war in the Caucasus, Mesopotamia and the Gallipoli Peninsula, and northern Italy became a major front. By 1918, German submarines were making probes along America’s Atlantic coast, and the Allies, fearing the success of the Soviets in Russia, sent expeditionary forces to Northern Russia and Siberia that fought after the European Armistice was signed. Why? The key actors in the opening of the drama known as the Great War saw themselves as “Great Powers.” Most of them entered the war to keep from losing influence or to arrest a decline already perceived. To avoid losing they were willing to draw on all their worldwide resources, colonial and economic, to mobilize their entire citizenry in support of the war, to fight anywhere, anytime and to strong-arm any neutrals who got in the way. Some of the early non-participants were educated that the war itself and the settlement that would follow was just too important to ignore. Most European countries found it necessary to declare for one side of the other. Other ambitious rising nations, such as Japan early, and the United States later, concluded that their own national aims could be met only by joining the war. It was a novel idea in 1914 that a distant dispute, among parties with whom you have little disagreement yourself, could influence your own peace and prosperity. Today we call it globalization.

Credits: Illustrations from the collection of Tony Langley, contributing editor of Trip Wire

Learn More About The First World War


Senegalese Troops of the French Army


  1. Participants in WWI (Includes lists of colonies involved)
  2. WWI Document Archive
  4. Art of the First World War
  5. The World’s Navies in the Great War
  6. The Great War in Numbers

A Soldier of the Ottoman Empire


  1. American Heritage History Of World War 1, S.L.A. Marshall, Random House, 1988
  2. The First World War: A Complete History, Martin Gilbert, Holt 1996
  3. The World Crisis, 1911-1918, Winston S. Churchill, Free Press, 2005
  4. Voices from the Great War, Peter Vansittart, Avon, 1985
  5. The First World War: Volume I: To Arms, Hew Stachan, Oxford University, 2001
  6. The Experience of World War I, J.M. Winter, Oxford University, 1989
  7. The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry: Revised Edition, Jon Silkin (Editor), Penguin Classics, 1997

Indochinese Volunteers on the Western Front

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