Merrimack Repertory Theatre Blog


WORLD WAR I

WORLD WAR I

The following article appears in the student study guide for Heroes, and is intended to help audience members learn more about the production.

Known as The War to End All Wars, the countries involved in World War I were decided by long existing treaties. On June 28, 1914 the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. Three weeks later, in response to the murder, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia compiled of unreasonable demands. They intended these demands to be unacceptable so Serbia would refuse, providing Austria-Hungary with a premise to declare war. Expecting Serbia to seek help from their ally, Russia, Austria-Hungary enlisted the help of the German military.

These events led to what may be best described as the snowball effect; the Germans joined the Austria-Hungarians, so in order to protect their allies, the French joined Serbia. Soon, France’s ally Britain was forced to join the war in conjunction with a 75 year old treaty with Belgium. German saw neutral Belgium as the quickest route to Paris, and demanded the right to travel freely through the country, thus asking Belgium to violate their neutrality that had been in effect since the Treaty of London in 1839. The small country replied with firm disallowance.  The Germans retorted the Belgians response by tearing through the countryside, and occupied Belgium for most of the war, despite a strong resistance. Russia, another French ally, also joined the fight, forcing Germany and Austria-Hungary to fight the war on two fronts. What was at first supposed to be a short war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia spiraled out of control leading to approximately 39.5 million casualties between the two sides.

Though Britain was tied to France by treaty, they had abstained from the war until Belgium was invaded. This was because the treaty was more loosely based and the British had only a moral obligation to help. Belgium, however, was neutral ground, and so Britain declared war on behalf of France on the basis of defending Belgium territory. The Germans invaded Luxembourg and Belgium, with the goal to quickly take Paris and surround the French troops on the border of France and Germany. The speedy German advance was stopped by an Allied counter-attack in September of 1914, and the Western Front bogged down into four long years of trench warfare. Together Britain and France created a strong stalemate against Germany until Russia was defeated.

Trench warfare was one of the key features of World War I. Both sides built defensive trenches running from the North Sea to neutral Switzerland, and defended them with barbed wire, artillery, and machine guns. Also introduced for the first time in World War I were poison gas, aircraft, and tanks. These improvements in warfare resulted in huge losses from any army attempting to mount an offensive.

The United States had managed to refrain from joining the war for several years until Germany reinstated its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. This German policy of restricting ship attacks began in 1915 after German U-Boats sank the Lusitania, a British ship carrying many American civilians. The German government worried the United States would join the war if more of its citizens were killed. After two more years of war though, the German people were frustrated with the lack of progress and the Navy pressed the government to resume ship attacks. The thought was that the British fleet (and economy) could be decimated within 6 months, forcing their surrender, while it would take America at least a year to finally be provoked into war and mobilize a force.  This German policy put any ship on the water at risk of attack, therefore threatening the American shipping industry.

Knowing that America would be eventually drawn into that war, and that it would lose a protracted conflict, the German chancellor sought out new allies. In January of 1917, the German ambassador in Mexico was sent a message to propose a military alliance to Mexico if it looked like America was going to enter the war. In return for Mexico invading the US, Germany would provide Mexico support to help reclaim territory in California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. This message was intercepted and decrypted by British forces, and revealed in the American press, enflaming the US public.

This proposal did not make sense for Mexico for many reasons. Mexico had at this time been cooperating with its neighbors in Central and South America, who were allied with the US, so attacking the US would ruin this goodwill. Even if Germany did provide financial support, they couldn’t supply any weapons to equip the Mexican army due to the British blockade, and the only sizeable arms manufacturer in the Western Hemisphere was the United States. Lastly, even if they could reclaim their lost territory, they would still face a sizable resistance from the large English speaking population. Thus, Mexico official declined the German offer in mid-April of 1917, about a week after the US declared war on Germany.  

The United States finally entered the war on April 6, 1917. German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was quoted in response to the declaration saying that, “The German Nation, which feels neither hatred nor hostility, against the United States of America, shall also bear and overcome this.” American troops were rushed over to Europe at numbers exceeding 300,000 per month. Germany was able to make some headway in France in 1917, gaining territory and getting within shelling distance of Paris. But by summer of 1918 Germany was outmanned by the Allied forces, and their economy had been heavily strained. The French, British, American, Canadian, and Australian forces finally united under an organized command, leading to the successful Hundred Days Offensive that saw the German lines broken and many of their troops surrender. An armistice was signed on November 11, ending the fighting. This date became the basis for our Veterans Day, which is celebrated every year on November 11. 

The following battle resulted in 318,203 American casualties. Along with the help of Japan and Italy, the Allies effectively out-fought Germany, which resulted in an armistice on November 11, 1918. The following year the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28th placing sole blame for starting the war on Germany. Germany lost territory, and had the size of its military reduced. The entire map of Europe was changed, with countries such as Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia gaining independence. Both the Ottoman and the Austrian-Hungarian Empires ceased to exist after the war, and the revolution in Russia cause the formation of the USSR. Although it was referred to at the time at the World to End All Wars because of the horrific loss of life, Germany’s discontent with the peace treaty was seen as a factor in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, causing World War II.

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