Americans often overlook World War One and its significance in forming the modern world. The reason why is obvious. World War Two is much more recent, many of our fathers participated in it, and the militaristic fascism of Germany, Italy, and Japan was a serious threat to the very survival of the western democracies.
As the one hundredth anniversary of World War One is upon us (July, 1914), there is much discussion among historians that World War Two was, in many ways, World War One part two. I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment. It is hard to understand why the nations of Europe, so torn apart by the Great War, would do it all over again just twenty-one years later, unless you understand why World War One was fought, and that the way in which the war came to an end (sheer exhaustion) left the key causes of the war unresolved.
The impact of World War One is huge. A few examples suffice to prove the point:
1). The map of much of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East was redrawn after the war, setting the stage for World War Two, the Cold War, and the current ethnic hostilities throughout the Balkans and Middle East
2). Submarines, machine guns, tanks, and airplanes were used for the first time
3). Both sides used WMDs--poison gas
4). Civilian populations were indiscriminately bombed (i.e., the Zeppelin and Gotha bomber raids on the UK), and neutral shipping (including passenger ships) were attacked by German submarines
5). Many of the historic royal families of Europe were removed from power: the Hapsburgs, the Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns, among others
6). The number of dead is absolutely staggering--37 million killed, wounded, or missing. Battles such as the Marne, the Somme, Verdun, and others, extended for weeks and months with causalities numbering into the hundreds of thousands (on both sides)
7). Many of the key figures in World War Two, fought in World War One--Hitler, De Gaulle, Churchill, Patton, MacArthur, Truman, Khruschev, Zuchov, Mussolini, Rommel
8). Ethnic minorities were "cleansed" from many nations in which they resided for millennia (i.e., the Armenians)
9). The Treaty of Versailles (which ended the war) was so harsh and unfair that it sowed the seeds for National Socialism in Germany, as well as varieties of fascism in both Italy and Japan
I could go on, and on . . .
If you wish to learn more about the Great War, there are a number of helpful resources (some of which are listed below)
There are a number of photo essays on-line such as this one: Photos from the Western Front
There is the excellent DVD series, The First World War
The recent French-produced series, Apocalypse World War One, which ran on the American Heroes Channel (formerly the Military Channel) is outstanding. Highly recommended.
Two other volumes of interest to readers of the Riddleblog are: Richard Gamble's The War for Righteousness, which documents how progressives in America came to see the war as a messianic cause, in which America fulfilled its role in God's providence by making the world "safe for democracy"; and Philip Jenkins' The Great and Holy War which wrestles with the irony of self-professed Christian nations waging such savage war upon one another.
That should get you started!