Great War World War One Ultimately Killed Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Great War

World War One ultimately killed 35 million people -- this alone might have merited its being called "The Great War," although to a large degree it was the astonishing way in which the deaths happened. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone, Britain suffered almost sixty thousand casualties. The ten-month stalemate of the Battle of Verdun resulted in seven hundred thousand (700,000) dead, with no discernible tactical advance made by either side (Tuchman 174). The immediate causes of World War One were complicated but fairly straightforward. Many of the long-standing political institutions of Europe were badly outmoded, in particular two of the oldest: the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Each of these institutions were the inheritors of previous large-scale imperial institutions (the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire accordingly) which dated back nearly a thousand years -- and each was failing badly. By the time war broke out, for example, the Ottoman Empire had for decades been referred to as "the sick man of Europe" -- due to its territorial losses in various smaller conflicts, its failing infrastructure, and its greater financial indebtedness to the larger European powers (Tuchman 141).

Meanwhile, ethnic conflict and agitation within the various populations contained within these political institutions -- covering the whole of eastern Europe -- had led to internal political instability. Into this powderkeg of long-term difficulties, the tiny spark of a political assassination performed by a fringe political group was enough to set off the vast explosion. A teenaged anarchist university student, Gavrilo Princip, shot the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand -- the reasons were separatism for one of the smaller ethnic and political units contained within the Empire (Tuchman 71). Eventually this led to a declaration of war, but a system of secret alliances between the European powers ultimately involved virtually every nation in Europe -- and the conflict would extend almost worldwide.

To this political situation, we must add the larger world picture, summed up by the general current of nineteenth-century Imperialism. Great Britain -- a small island in the north Atlantic -- had managed to amass a commercial empire that spanned the globe. The scramble for commercially exploitable colonial territories had already led to threats and armed conflicts elsewhere: in Great Britain's case, they would experience saber-rattling from American President Grover Cleveland during the Venezuela border dispute of 1897, and would descend into open warfare in Africa during the Boer War in 1899-1902 (Tuchman 10). In this scramble for territories, Germany -- which, due to the political order initially imposed in the wake of religious conflict, was extremely late in becoming a single unified state -- had to a certain degree lost out. German expansion, therefore, would find a push into the surrounding territory in Europe easier than establishing a serious colonial presence on other continents, although the Germans did manage to take territory in…

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