The RMS Lusitania sinking in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

The sinking of the RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner, resulted in 1,198 deaths and was a major factor in the American decision to get involved in World War I. Image from Wikipedia.

2018 marks the 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I, which would be the first large U.S. military involvement outside of the Western Hemisphere and the beginning of modern warfare.

It was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called for American involvement in what was then known as the “Great War” to defeat the German-led Central Powers. For the next 19 months, more than 4.7 million Americans would be mobilized for the conflict and 116,516 would lose their lives. All told, more than 65 million people of all nationalities would fight in the 20th century’s first global conflict and more than 8.5 million would die.

World War I is of vast historical importance, not only because of the great destruction that it wreaked on the European continent and the Middle East, but because it acted as a dividing line between the old world and the modern world. Many contemporary conflicts around the world and much of the current geopolitical landscape have their roots, directly or indirectly, in World War I.

The End of Empires

When World War I broke out, much of the world was still ruled by monarchies. During the conflict, four major empires were dissolved, making way for democracy and dictatorship, rather than monarchy, to be the chief forms of government around the world.

Most famously, the Russian Empire ended in 1917 when Czar Nicholas II was overthrown. After a brief period of democracy, Russia would become the first nation to be ruled by communism, marking the beginning of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) that would be a key player in world events during the 20th century.

But three other empires also faded after the war. The Ottoman Empire, which had ruled much of the Middle East and Balkans for centuries, fell apart with the U.S.-led defeat of the Central Powers. The Austrian and Hungarian empires of Central Europe also broke apart after finding themselves on the losing side of the conflict.

What followed would be an uneasy peace that would be shattered by World War II only 20 years later, which in turn was succeeded by the Cold War.

Map showing the alliances of World War I.

The world of World War I. Countries shown in green were the Allied powers, which were led by the U.S. after the American entry into the conflict in 1917. The countries in orange were the Central Powers. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Middle East Conflict

In November 1917, as the Allied Powers defeated the Central Powers, which included the Ottoman Empire, Britain gained control of parts of the Middle East. They proclaimed the Balfour Declaration, inviting Jews to settle in Palestine.

The Balfour Declaration would directly result in the current Arab-Israeli conflict, which many observers consider to be the world’s most stubborn modern international confrontation.

Modern Warfare

World War I has often been termed the first modern war, due to the advent of technologies such as military tanks, air forces and chemical weapons. It was the first time that the world witnessed death and destruction on a truly mass scale. The world’s image of warfare would forever be transformed from cannons and rifles to bombs dropped from the sky and weapons of mass destruction.

A World War I biplane on a grassy field.

Airplanes such as this may look simple by today’s standards, but their debut in World War I would forever change human warfare. Image from Wikipedia.

The League of Nations

World War I concluded on Nov. 11, 1918, at exactly 11 a.m. – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Many countries would observe this day as Armistice Day. In the U.S., we commemorate it as Veteran’s Day, in honor of all military service members who have fought in American military engagements.

With the realization of the lethality of modern warfare, world powers created the League of Nations in 1919. Despite the strong support of President Wilson, the U.S. ultimately decided to stay out of this international organization. The league would be the prototype for the United Nations and the multitude of other international organizations that seek to maintain world unity today.

A Mihaylo College Professor Examines the War’s Aftermath

Mihaylo College Economics Professor Adrian Fleissig co-authored a 2015 study, “Belgium relief fund, post war food shortages and the “True” cost of living,” which was published in Explorations in Economic History. The study examines the impact of World War I on the economy of Belgium, one of the worst affected countries, which suffered from severe food shortages. The study notes postwar shortages of eggs, butter, potatoes, vegetables and sugar, which caused a major increase in the cost of living.

For More on World War I

For more on the historical impact of World War I, visit the United States World War One Centennial Commission.

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