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Major Turning Points of World War I

“The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
  - Sir Winston Churchill (1930)

The unpredictable turns that war takes are best revealed by a study of World War I. In the early years of the twentieth century, most Europeans were lulled into a sense of peace and security by the absence of any major war in over a century. Even through the developments in July 1914, none of the major powers had anticipated the enormity or the magnitude of the consequences of war.

Some of the major turning points of World War I that shaped the course of the outcome were unpredictable. A number of questions are raised in this context.

Why Did Italy Join The Allies?
In the years leading up to World War I, Italy had signed the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. At the outbreak of World War I, it was believed that Italy would join forces with the Central Powers. Italy had, however, declared that it would not go into war in case of a conflict with Britain. Italy had also signed a secret pact with France guaranteeing France a similar immunity.

In 1914, Mussolini had declared Italy’s neutrality and pronounced, “Down with the war. Down with arms and up with humanity.”

Italy was wooed through 1914 and 1915 by the Allied Powers with promises of territorial gains. In 1915, Italy signed the secret Treaty of London. The terms of the treaty promised Italy the territories of Tyrol, Dalmatia, and Istria in the Adriatic Sea. In addition, Britain granted Italy an immediate loan amounting to £50 million. Popular sentiments in Italy were also in favor of joining the war.

On May 23, 1915, with the declaration of war with Austria-Hungary, Italy joined World War I on the side of the Allied Powers.

The early battles fought by Italy in 1915 include the First Battle of the Isonzo, Second Battle of the Isonzo, Third Battle of the Isonzo, and Fourth Battle of the Isonzo. The number of fatalities registered by Italy in these battles was over 60,000.

Why Was the Race to the Sea Significant?
The Germans attempted to achieve a decisive victory over France by implementing the Schlieffen Plan and fighting out the war on two fronts. A stiff resistance from Belgium foiled the plan by bringing Britain and Russia into the Battle of the Marne. German plans to capture Paris were unsuccessful and the German troops withdrew behind the Aisne River after a series of setbacks. Here, they dug trenches and settled in to halt the advancing Allied army.

With the Allied failure to break through the German trench line, the commanders of the Central and Allied Powers, Erich von Falkenhayn and Joseph Joffre, attempted to outflank each other to the north. The area between the Aisne and the North Sea was strategic, as this meant getting past the enemy lines for the Allies, and defending home territory for the Germans.

What ensued has been termed the “Race to the Sea” by historians. The armies’ attempts to outdo each other toward the north only resulted in a stabilization of the front. Hardly any mobility was achieved and the war on the Western Front settled into a slow war of attrition. The Race to the Sea ended with the First Battle of Ypres in October and November 1914.

The Race to the Sea and the First Battle of Ypres were major turning points in World War I as they resulted in a frustrating stalemate and the end of mobile operations on the Western Front until 1918.
 

Why Did the United States Join World War I?
At the outbreak of World War in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson called for the United States to remain neutral in thought and action. Despite the country’s neutral stance, popular sentiments in America tipped in favor of the Allied Powers.

By 1915, Germany launched several submarine attacks on passenger and cargo vessels approaching Britain. The Royal Mail Ship Lusitania was one of the British liners that were sunk by German U-boats. Among the 1,200 passengers who died, 128 were American. This caused a huge outcry in the United States and the opinions in favor of joining the war grew strong.

Having temporarily halted submarine warfare in 1916, Germany once again embarked on unrestricted naval warfare. In an attempt to starve Britain, any ship approaching British waters was sunk. The Housatonic, an American cargo ship, was among their early targets and was sunk.

At around the same time, British intelligence had intercepted the Zimmerman Note from Germany to Mexico. Germany prompted Mexico to declare war on the United States, and promised military assistance.

Thus provoked, President Wilson went to Congress on April 2, 1917 with a proposal of war which Congress approved and declared U.S. entry into World War I on April 6, 1917.

U.S. assistance provided a big boost to the Allied Powers and turned the tide of the war in favor of the Allies.

How Did the Russian Revolution Impact World War I?
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a direct result of the economic strain and the discomposure caused by mobilization. By 1917, over two-thirds of the male workers of Russia’s peasant households had enlisted. Increased dissent against the autocracy and a strong need for a new order to emerge led to the outbreak of the revolutions in Russia. This forced Russia to withdraw from World War I and sign an armistice with the Central Powers in December 1917.

The Russian Revolution was significant because it freed up a significant number of German troops and shifted the focus to the Western Front. With the threat of a social revolution looming, it became increasingly important for the European nations to win a quick and decisive victory.

Despite the turn of events and the subsequent victory of the Allied Powers, the losses and damages to both the Allies and Central Powers were immense. The Great War, as World War I is called, was unprecedented in its impact and soaring fatalities.





  Major Turning Points of World War I  
Battle of Passchendaele - 1917Battle of Passchendaele - 1917
Battle of Tannenberg – 1914Battles of Gaza - 1917
Battle of Heligoland Bight - 1914Second Battle of Aisne - 1917
First Battle of Marne – 1914Second Battle of Arras - 1917
First Battle of the Masurian Lakes – 1914Battle of Messines – 1917
First Battle of Aisne – 1914Battle of Passchendaele - 1917
First Battle of Albert - 1914Battle of Caporetto - 1917
First Battle of Arras – 1914Battle of Cambrai - 1917
First Battle of Ypres – 1914German Spring Offensive - 1918
Gallipoli Campaign – 1915Hundred Days Offensive - 1918
Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes – 1915Battle of Passchendaele - 1917
Battles of Isonzo – 1915Second Battle of Somme - 1918
Loos-Artois Offensive - 1915Second Battle of Marne - 1918
Battle of Verdun - 1916Battle of St Mihiel - 1918
Battle of Passchendaele - 1917Battle of Cambrai - 1917
First Battle of Somme - 1916Battle of Vittori Veneto - 1918


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