The First World War on the Western Front, 1914-1918
© Piston/Excelsior-L'équipe/Roger Viollet
© Archives départementales de Seine-Maritime
© Historial de la Grande Guerre-Péronne (Somme). Photo Yazid Medmoun
© Wackernie/Excelsior-L'équipe/Roger Viollet
© Conseil Général du Cher, direction des archives départementales et du patrimoine
© Archives départementales de l'Aisne
The war begins
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. This event provokes a diplomatic crisis throughout Europe, where tensions of national power still reign strongly.
Within a few weeks, the continent plunges into war through military alliances, and by August 4, there are two sides : the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the members of the Entente, or Alliance (France, the United Kingdom, Russia and Serbia). After the first battles in autumn, two fronts are formed: in the East, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and in the West, from the North Sea to Switzerland.
The belligerents enter into attrition warfare. On the Western front, the armies bury themselves in trenches, with the enemy lines hundreds - sometimes only tens - of meters away. The French army occupies the Southern part of the front, from the Vosges to the Somme, and the British Empire's troops take over from the Somme to the North Sea.
Violence on the battlefields
The war quickly evolves into siege warfare, where artillery, machine guns and new weapons like poison gas play the leading role. The First World War marks a turning point in the history of battlefield violence; never before had firepower been so intense. In one day only, on February 21, 1916, the Germans fire a million shells on the French positions in Verdun. The soldiers are poorly protected and suffer great bodily harm; 70% of injuries are due to artillery bombardments.
Societies are disrupted
The duration of the war requires industries, colonial troops and society as a whole to be mobilised. The war becomes total, and with the conflict's unexpected prolongation, the belligerents have to face new economic problems. There must be massive production of military equipment and the provision of supplies for the army and the population in order to maintain a constant war effort. The mobilisation of men requires finding replacements for their civilian activities, meaning that the women take over a large part of their economic output, in the fields and factories.
The war also disrupts economic behaviour. Until 1914, the State intervened little, yet now it has to organise and finance a large part of industrial production. It becomes an economy of war. To deal with increasing expenses, the State increases its revenues by notably turning to loans.
The war is over
In 1917, two events mark a turning point : the United States of America join the war with the Entente Powers, and the Bolshevik revolution ends conflict between Russia and the Central Powers. In 1918, manoeuvre warfare starts again : the German army launches great offensives and pierces the front. But the counter-offensive of the Allies forces it to retreat, gaining a definite advantage. Beset by a revolution, Germany asks for an armistice : it is signed on November 11 in Rethondes.