The World War I Research Paper

This sample The World War I Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need help writing your assignment, please use our research paper writing service and buy a paper on any topic at affordable price. Also check our tips on how to write a research paper, see the lists of research paper topics, and browse research paper examples.

World War I (1914-1918), known as “The Great War” at the time, marked a profound political, economic, and social shift in international relations. Historian Eric Hobsbawm has referred to 1914 as the de facto beginning of the twentieth century.

The triggering cause of the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Habsburg heir, on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb nationalists. This matter might have stayed an internal dispute in Austria-Hungary, but other states quickly took sides. Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary made up the Central Powers. Russia stood up for the Serbs, and was joined by France and Great Britain in the Triple Entente.

According to one interpretation of World War I, a rigid alliance structure drew reluctant states into what would otherwise have been a localized conflict. Many of the belligerents did have alliances binding them to a particular side. For example, both Britain and France had pledged to defend Belgian neutrality, which was violated at the beginning of the war by German invasion. However, all of the belligerents also had compelling national interests for participating in World War I, including concerns about national insurgency and perceptions of the European balance of power.

Nationalism drew belligerents into World War I in two ways. Russia defended Serbia at least partly in the name of pan-Slavism, or solidarity among Slavic peoples. The Ottoman Empire had a different concern. Like its Habsburg counterpart, the Ottoman Empire comprised a variety of national groups, all ruled by a single dominant national group. The spread of democracy and other egalitarian movements in Europe challenged the legitimacy of the old empires. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire experienced various national uprisings, including those by Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Armenians. By helping the Habsburgs resist nationalist insurgency, the Ottomans hoped to avert future problems of their own.

In addition, many states were concerned about the changing European balance of power. The pentagonal balance created at the 1815 Congress of Vienna had been relatively successful, both in keeping European conflicts manageable and protecting the interests of Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany (previously called Prussia), and Russia. By 1914, however, several of these states were not content with the existing balance of power.

For example, Germany was a latecomer to imperialism, a process dominated by France and Britain, and therefore perceived itself at a disadvantage in both power projection and resource extraction. Although overseas imperialism offered limited possibilities by the early 1900s, Germany began to pursue a policy (Drang nach Osten) of increased economic and political influence in eastern Europe, thus “colonizing” the region. German leaders argued that this would balance French and British power.

France and Britain, however, did not perceive themselves as at an advantage vis-a-vis Germany. Germany had benefited tremendously from the Industrial Revolution, especially since its natural resource base was well suited to industrial production. In 1870, Germany ranked third in industrial production behind Britain and France. By 1914, Germany led them both by a substantial margin. Britain and France feared that Germany’s economic trajectory would soon render moot efforts at power balancing. To avoid German hegemony as a fait accompli, the other great powers would need to act quickly.

Russia, too, had balance-of-power concerns regarding Germany, with which it shared a tense history. The Drang nach Osten interfered with Russia’s domestic economy and trade with its neighbors. Furthermore, Russia had been at an enduring geopolitical disadvantage because it lacked warm water ports (i.e., ones in which the water does not freeze), which limited its military and commercial expansion. Defeating the Central Powers could mean Russian access to Germany’s Baltic ports and the Mediterranean Sea via Turkish straits.

The World At War

Once the war began, its course was horrifyingly unique to European experience. Germany expanded the aggression outside of Austria-Hungary by implementing the Schlieffen Plan, a military strategy designed to prevent Germany from fighting on two fronts simultaneously. The existence of such a plan reflected the influence of prevailing social attitudes on military doctrine. The popularity of ideas such as Social Darwinism, a perversion of Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection then applied to human social interaction, bred a pan-European “cult of the offensive,” or fanatical confidence in initial aggression as the guarantor of victory. Darwin argued that organisms with traits well suited to their environment would be the most likely to survive and reproduce. The Social Darwinist ideal twisted this commentary to argue that powerful groups had the ability, even the right, to dominate weaker ones and to mold human relations as they saw fit. As a result, states generated extremely aggressive military grand strategies—their overall plans for using the military instrument of foreign policy. For example, Germany’s Schlieffen Plan called for the speedy conquest of France, via neutral Belgium, so German forces could then focus on an eastern front against Russia, which would mobilize relatively slowly for geographic and technological reasons.

The reality of World War I looked very little like the Schlieffen Plan. In early August 1914, Germany attacked Belgium. Reinforced by troops from Britain and France, Belgium tenaciously resisted German invasion. Russia, having anticipated conflict with Germany and availing itself of technological advances such as railroads, mobilized faster than Germany had anticipated. Within weeks, Germany found itself caught in a two-front war.

This conflict was unlike any Europe had seen before. A popular slogan claimed that soldiers marching off in August 1914 would be “home before the leaves fall from the trees,” but even after months the two sides had made little progress toward their war aims. Various conditions of the war made territorial conquest difficult. In the west, the extremely flat terrain of Southwestern Belgium provided little natural shelter. This encouraged trench warfare, the digging of passageways open to the surface, from which soldiers could attack with at least minimal cover. The introduction of barbed wire assisted in this process and in holding territory. Capturing territory from the trenches was difficult. Instead, World War I became a war of attrition, in which victory would be defined by exhausting the enemy’s resources rather than by superior mobility and territorial conquest. Military engagement frequently ended in deadlock, as when the 1916 German attack at Verdun preempted an Entente offensive on the Somme, but did not achieve the larger goal of crippling the French. Later that year, Britain launched its first major offensive of the war, at the Somme. In four months the Entente lost some 600,000 men while gaining only a few miles of territory. For years, neither side had an enduring battlefield advantage, although both expended unprecedented amounts of materiel and human lives. At least twenty million soldiers were killed or wounded during the war.

Military leaders introduced destructive new technologies, attempting to break the trench stalemate. Machine guns allowed for tremendous firepower and resulted in devastating casualties, as did tanks and submarines as new weapons platforms. Poison gas, introduced by Germany at Ypres in 1915, was difficult to control in deployment and undetectable until its effects were irreversible; gas caused pain, burns, other physical trauma, and death. These conditions eventually generated a sense of futility and ennui among many soldiers, and caused mutiny late in the war, such as that of the French army in 1917. One of the lasting consequences of these battle conditions was the emergence of “shell shock” (today known as post-traumatic stress disorder), which disabled thousands of soldiers who had survived the fighting.

On the eastern front, armies enjoyed greater mobility but suffered staggering casualties in the face of the technological innovations. In 1917 Russia withdrew from the conflict because of the Bolshevik Revolution. Britain and France appealed to the United States, which had been supplying their war effort for some time, to take Russia’s place. Although President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) had campaigned on a no-war platform, the economic significance, in particular of Britain and France, finally persuaded him to change his position. With the declaration of war by the U.S. Congress on April 6, 1917, the United States formally allied itself with Britain and France.

The new influx of American resources and personnel, beginning in earnest in the summer of 1918, was too much for Germany. Recognizing that Germany could not win a war of attrition against this energetic, well-supplied new enemy, the German navy mutinied, popular revolution led the Kaiser to abdicate, and the new government agreed to an armistice on the Entente’s terms. The agreement was signed on November 11, 1918, at 11: 00 a.m. For many Germans, the Entente victory seemed illegitimate. Germany had not been outmaneuvered on the battlefield and victorious Entente troops did not capture Berlin. Rather, the Entente seemed to have won by calling in outsiders to the dispute; this said nothing about Germany’s prowess vis-a-vis France and Britain.

Beginning in January 1919, the former belligerents met in Paris to formulate the peace treaty, known as the Treaty of Versailles after the palace in which it was signed. President Wilson attended the conference, to the surprise and consternation of many of his counterparts, making him the first sitting U.S. president to visit a foreign country. Two major goals of the treaty were to render Germany harmless and to avoid future problems with national insurgency. To achieve the first goal the victors implemented a number of programs targeting Germany, including reparation payments, disarmament, and neutralization of territory. To achieve the second goal, the victors promoted national self-determination for European ethnic groups, redrawing the map of eastern Europe so that the political boundaries more closely matched the homelands of ethnic groups.


  1. Ferro, Marc. 1973. The Great War, 1914–1918. Trans. Nicole Stone. London: Routledge & K. Paul.
  2. Fussell, Paul. 1975. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Kennedy, David M. 1980. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Keylor, William R. 2001. Germany’s Bid for European Dominance (1914–1918). In The Twentieth-Century World, an International History. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Van Evera, Stephen. 1984. The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War. International Security 9 (1): 58–107.

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to buy a custom research paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655