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World War One: THE “GREAT” WAR

World War I


The First World War 1914-1918

“WAR!! What is it good for? Absolutely Nothin!” – Edwin Starr

(Well, technically War is in the interests of those who win, usually.)

Regardless of how you look at it, War IS costly. It’s expensive in more than just an economical sense: there are always casualties, both soldiers and civilians, figures that are not quantifiable by monetary means. Sometimes War is seen as a battle of good versus evil. More often than not however, it is a conflict fueled by greed. In many cases, War is inevitable. Typically war is the catalyst for change, often times positive, regardless of the violence and destruction which preceded it. Then every now and then there’s a case where a war happens for no reason at all, with nothing to show for it.

World War One was one such conflict.

Adventure and Action! - Enlist in the US Army

If war is defined as the Failure of diplomacy, than it should be reasoned that a World War is, without a doubt, an Epic FAIL.

The First World War, also sarcastically referred to as THE “GREAT” WAR, was probably the most pointless conflict in the history of mankind. At the time it was marketed as The War to End All Wars, but the Armistice Peace Treaty at Versailles that ended the global conflict would come to be known as the Peace to End All Peace.

This was the last major war to utilize horses, and the first to feature airplanes and by extension, aerial combat. This was also the first and last time that chemical weapons were the in thing to do. Over the course of four years, the Great War claimed 37 million lives, including almost Nine million civilians, involving 104 countries around the world, and cost roughly $186.3 billion! 

Oh yeah, and it all started over a small incident, an assassination of some noble guy from some backwoods country no one can even seem to remember anymore…

What did you do in the Great War - recruitment poster

that blank stare is the result of PTSD – he’s seen some serious shit…

How it all Began…

June 28, 1914 – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (and his wife Sophie), a plot hatched by a couple of Serbian extremists in Bosnia from an Al-Qaeda-like group called ‘the Black Hand’ (presumably because the ‘Evil League of Evil’ was taken). The initial attempt on their lives was a failure when a grenade missed their caravan. So, as a last ditch ever, one of the conspirators jumped into the moving vehicle and shot the royal couple point blank. The two assailants involved both bit down on cyanide capsules, which also failed. They were then tried and subsequently hanged.

This incident would normally be regulated to yesterday’s news in a few days time, but due to a convoluted mess known as the Allied System, which began to form after the Crimean War (which was sorta like World World Zero – article coming soon). Suddenly everyone was at war with one another else over the possibility of being attacked by one another over their relationship to one another, all because of a conflict that didn’t involve any of them to begin with.

There was a chance Austria-Hungary might invade Serbia over this isolated act of terrorism. If that were to happen, Russia, Serbia’s best friend, would invade Austria. As it turns out, Austria’s pal Germany wasn’t going to stand for that. Because there was a possibility that Germany might end up attacking France in the midst of the conflict, and IF France was at war with Germany, than poor little Belgium would feel insecure. And so Great Brittain joined up to defend Belgium. But because Britain became directly involved, so did the British Commonwealth: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada, among others. The Ottoman Empire only got up in arms when Germany blamed Turkey for attacking Russia.

'I'm sorry - I can't hear you over the sound of my neutrality."

(Switzerland was neutral, naturally.)

So it came down to the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman-Turks, and Bulgaria vs the Allied / Associate Powers aka EVERYONE ELSE.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was the Emperor of Germany at the time, and typically singled out as the reason behind this “War to End All Wars”. Frederick Wilhelm (German Emperor and King of Prussia) dismissed the Chancellor, Otto Von Bismark, and decided to run the show his way, a “New Course” that he implemented, code-name: Schlieffen.

The Schlieffen Plan (named after Count Alfred Von Schlieffen) was a worst-case-scenario attack / defense plan in the event that the German Empire should find itself in the compromising position of fighting a conflict on two fronts: France to the West, and Russia to the East. Which is exactly what ended up happening. However, the premature implementation of this thorough plan may have been the primary catalyst for the conflict that would alter the course of history forever. Once Germany started mobilizing its troops, Russia figured it too should start mobilizing, and so on. This domino effect continued until before anyone realized it their armies were clashing at a perpetual stalemate.

What happens when the immovable object meets the irresistible force?

The Western Front: The Trenches of Hell

black and white trench warfare pic

charging machine gun fire – best. idea. ever.

The primary theater of war was the notorious practice of Trench warfare, which consisted of opposing armies digging their own graves along border lines, and then uselessly slaughtering one another with machine guns, artillery shells, and many a chemical weapon in a futile attempt to gain territory. A completely inefficient form of decimating one another’s army across lines drawn in the sand with tons of casualties and no real change. Trench warfare was all about fortification, digging in, and not letting up.

a picture from WWI - two soldiers with gas masks firing a machine gunThis war was unique for several factors, one primary one being the excessive use of chemical weapons, on both ends. I’m not just talkin Tear Gas here, shells of lethal gases like Chlorine and Phosgene were pumped into the trenches. Although gas masks were issued in response, they were sometimes deficient. Those not equipped with gas masks would sometimes  escape into the barbed wire strewn No Man’s Land for some fresh hair, only to inhale a volley of lead instead.

Poisonous gas was only one of many factors that soldiers had to contend with. The fortified trenches were constantly being bombarded by artillery shells in an attempt to flush each other out and finish the job.

diagram of a WWI trench fortificationConditions were terrible, stress, fear, and apathy permeated the young traumatized soldiers, rations were lower than morale, disease was rampant, and the whole affair was a useless exercise from the start.

Nobility and glory were things of the past. the truth could not hide from the horrors of photographic recollection. One of the most ironic factors of this war was the excessive use of propaganda. Idealized enlistment posters chock-full of empty promises of glory, riches, adventure, exotic locales, and in some cases even sexual appeal.


"I want you - for the Navy" - propaganda

This is what they got instead:

footage from an old WWI movie

“We need a distraction so the rest of us can sneak around the back and steal their booze. What are ya waitin for soldier? Get yer ass up there and die for your country!”

The Eastern Front

On the East Side of Europe, there was a less formal, yet equally barbaric conflict brewing between Russia and Austria. This quickly fell apart when Germany unleashed their secret weapon on Russia: communism. They essentially aimed Vladimir Lenin towards Russia, and let him off the leash, or you know bought him a train ticket to Moscow. Thanks to a little party called the Bolsheviks Revolution, Germany’s plan succeeded, and Russia, one of the key players in the war, dropped out, without a notice (more on that here: Tales from under the Iron Fist of STALIN).

The “Sky Front”?

aerial dogfight - WWI

1903 – The Wright Brothers perform the first flight with their innovative ‘aero-plane’.

1911 – The first military use of an airplane.

1914 – 1918 : Combat aircraft gradually became a prominent feature of modern warfare throughout WWI.

old wwi plane crashAbove the mustard-gas fumes of the front lines, another war raged in the skies. When strategic bombing became problematic, the answer came in the form of planes with machine guns strapped to their wings.

As a result: Dogfights broke out all over the skies of Europe.

Ballsy pilots in thick jackets and goggles fought in flying metal death traps whilst dodging, and shooting at one another. It was a surprise that these things could stay aloft in the sky, so it didn’t take a whole lot to bring them down: one flimsy wing and gravity did the rest. Most of those who took off never came back down, alive. Among these original flyboys was a notorious ace known as The Red Baron.

Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (aka The Red Baron) was a German fighter pilot who became a national hero, taking down 80 enemies before finally being shot down himself. Rather than crashing and burning, the Baron took a single bullet to the side, and managed to land before bleeding out. His last word was Kaputt.

This period was also saw the formation of the American Air Force. Speaking of the USA…

America joins the party: Now it’s Personal!

depiction of the Lusitania shipwreck

The year was 1915 – 14 miles off the coast of Ireland, German Submarines were attempting to blockade trade routes to its enemies, England and France. Just a few years after the tragic sinking of the Titanic, the RMS Lusitania was making its voyage across the Atlantic to Britain, when out of nowhere a German U-Boat fired a torpedo at the civilian vessel. On impact the explosion ripped into the hull and set off a chain of secondary explosions. The Lusitania went under in less than 18 minutes. The ship had 1,959 people on board, including 159 Americans. 1,198 were killed. Americans were outraged that so many innocent bystanders had become casualties in a war they were neutral in.

At the time, America’s foreign affairs were a bit different. The United States tended to stay out of the rest of the world’s business. That was about to change in a big way…

In 1917, U.S. intelligence intercepted the ‘Zimmerman telegram’ a coded message sent from the German Empire to Mexico. Germany offered to help Mexico regain its lost territories from the United States if they would join them in their fight. Needless to say, the Zimmerman telegram was the last straw, giving President Woodrow Wilson plenty of ammo to declare war on Germany.

Within a year the war would come to a screeching halt.


"Germany Gives Up - War Ends at 2 Pm" - newspaper headline

The Central Powers were surrounded, casualties were piling up, people were starving, protestors in Berlin were threatening a socialist revolution, and Germany at the epicenter, imploded from all the pressure. The German Empire surrendered, an Armistice was established, and the Treaty of Versailles was signed in France. Kaiser Wilhelm’s failed Schlieffen Plan was of course a big part of the overall failure that was the Great War. As a result Wilhelm was exiled to the Netherlands for the remainder of his life. The war ended just as it had begun, in confusion.

The “Great” War was in a word: pointless. Even so WWI kicked off one of the most devastating international conflicts to ever befall our planet. Never before had so many people from so many different parts of the globe tried to kill each other over the same reason. A reason which none of them could explain to you with a straight face, except for the fact that they were told to do so. What’s worse is that many new inventions in the way of death-dealing made their anticipated debut on the scene, to the horror of the opposing armies.

a smiling soldier riding a leopard backwards

False Advertising

5% of Russia’s total population was wiped out 8% of France’s, 9% of Germany’s, and 11% of Great Britain’s population was deceased by war’s end. In fact Britain’s population was hit so badly that there was a significant gender imbalance. All the young men had gone off to fight and die in a pointless war.

Beyond the millions of deaths by your standard gunfire, exploding shells, grenades, barbed wire, starvation, gangrene, frostbite, and suicide, the number one mass killer throughout the entire conflict was disease. Infections from grizzly wounds in unsanitary conditions, germ-ridden rats, and deadly viruses spread from exotic locales all around the world. However, the absolute worst was the Influenza Outbreak which claimed over 10 million worldwide.

To top it off, the war ended with practically nothing left changed, except the population of Europe took a big dip, the Middle East now hated Western Civilization, everyone blamed Germany for starting it, and as they all shook hands they began plotting for the sequel (WW – Episode II: Revenge of the Nazis?). The factors that led to the Second World War were directly a result of this previous World War: Germany was devastated. Unrealistic economic pressure was put on the German people by the League of Nations. In their desperation the German people sought out a scapegoat. A WWI veteran by the name of Adolf Hitler manipulated his way into power through giving a voice to the anger of the masses, and the fascist regime known as the Nazi party was established.

Yep, the War to End All Wars ironically set everything in place for World War II, a far more devastating conflict, the outcome of which led directly into the various conflicts of the Cold War: Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, etc – which in turn led to the ongoing ‘War on Terror’.

No one actually won World War One, but Germany definitely lost.

                                                                                                          Erik Slader

German lancer - WWI (black and white photo)

Hope you enjoyed this edition of “Epik Fails of History!”, if you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions let me know in the comments below! Also, be sure to ’Like’ EPiK FAILs on Facebook, or Follow on Twitter, and SHARE IT with your friends!

—– More articles on Historic Failure:




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“World War One: A Short History” by: Norman Stone

“The Great War and Modern Memory” by: Paul Fussell

“World War I: Opposing Viewpoints”





Erik Slader
Erik Slader
Erik Slader is the creator of “Epik Fails of History” a blog (and podcast) about the most epic fails… of history. With Ben Thompson, Erik is the co-author of the Epic Fails book series. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Digital Media, once managed a comic book shop, has a weakness for fancy coffee and currently lives in Green Cove Springs, Florida with too many cats.


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