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World War One Chronology

Read about the timeline of events that took place in World War One to help get a better understanding of key dates.

Stage One: July to December 1914

Fighting broke out in Europe at the end of July 1914, after Serbia refused to meet Austro-Hungary’s demands following the assassination of the heir to the throne at the hands of Serbian terrorists. By opening hostilities with Serbia, Austro-Hungary triggered the two main alliance systems operating in Europe; Russia came to the defence of the Serbians, and Germany backed Austro-Hungary’s cause. Britain and France then honoured the mutual defence treaties they had made with Russia, making formal declarations of war after Germany put into action the Schlieffen Plan to attack France through neutral Belgium. This was seen by the German High Command as preferable to attacking France through the heavily fortified and difficult terrain that formed the border between the two countries. After the British had dispatched the BEF (British Expeditionary Force), their first engagement involved halting the German advance at Mons before being forced into retreat. A French counter-attack at the Marne then caused both armies to withdraw from the battlefield and begin a process of attempting to outflank one another as they raced northwards towards the sea and the strategically valuable Belgian ports. In October, the Germans attacked at Ypres to try and break through to the ports and although the line was held, Britain suffered 50,000 losses. By Christmas, the race to the sea had created miles of trenches stretching from Switzerland to Flanders and stalemate set in. At home, the government had acquired powers over the economy and introduced censorship and martial law through DORA (Defence of the Realm Act).

Key dates include:

28th June 1914 - The assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand

28th July 1914 - Austro-Hungary declare war on Serbia

3rd August 1914 - Germany put the Schlieffen Plan into action and invade Belgium

4th August 1914 - Great Britain declare war on Germany

8th August 1914 – Defence of the Realm Act (DORA)

August 1914 - The Battle of the Mons

October 1914 - Ist Battle of Ypres

Stage Two: 1915

In early 1915, fighting on the Western Front was still focused on the area around the Belgian ports, known as Ypres. If the German Army had taken control there, they would have been able to block supplies from the British mainland; this process was already being hampered by the use of U Boat submarines to attack vessels travelling from and to the British Isles. One of these was the American passenger vessel, the Lusitania, and its sinking was decisive in encouraging the US to enter the war eighteen months later. In the 2nd Battle of Ypres, a joint force of British and Canadian soldiers once again held out, but suffered significant casualties (69,000 allies), many through the use of poison gas. Discontent with the bloody stalemate was now growing amongst the civilian population, particularly when the press reported on how the artillery were firing shells of poor quality that often failed to explode on impact and that supplies were running dangerously low. By the end of the year, key personnel changes had been made in response to public pressure; the government was now headed by a Liberal-Unionist coalition and Sir Douglas Haig was brought in to command the BEF after John French failed to break the deadlock.

Key dates include:

February 1915 – U Boat blockade begins in the English Channel

April 1915 - 2nd Battle of Ypres

September 1915 - Battle of Loos

7th May 1915 - The Lusitania is sunk by a German U Boat

25th May 1915 – The Shell Crisis and formation of a coalition government in Britain

15th December 1915 - Sir John French is replaced by Douglas Haig as Commander in Chief of the BEF

Stage Three: 1916

After he had taken command of British troops, Haig was under significant pressure to break the stalemate on the Western Front and win the war. The need for a victorious offensive grew more pressing after the German Army attacked the French at Verdun, far south of the Belgian ports. There were also increasing fears of the power of the German navy, although allied victory at the Battle of Jutland ensured that this continued to be confined to the North Sea. The Battle of the Somme aimed to relieve pressure on the French and deliver a decisive blow to the enemy, in the hope of breaking through the defensive trench line. The danger of going on the offensive was obvious; since they occupied French territory, the Germans simply had to be holding their line to be seen as winning the war and they therefore fortified their position heavily, with the use of concrete and barbed wire. Haig was also now fighting with an army of conscripts as trained manpower ran low. The opening day of the battle was the bloodiest in the history of the British Army, with 57,000 British casualties from the 120,000 who took part. The artillery bombardment had failed to destroy German trench lines and it was therefore possible for the opposition to attack advancing British troops with machine guns. The battle dragged on until November, when the Germans retreated five miles after their counter-attacks also resulted in heavy losses. 600,000 casualties were suffered by both sides and the battle was far from decisive, but it did allow for experimentation with new weaponry (including tanks and the creeping barrage) that would play a key role in 1918.

Key dates include:

January 1916 – Conscription introduced in Britain

February 1916 – The Battle of Verdun

May 1916 – The Battle of Jutland

1st July 1916 – The Battle of the Somme begins

November 1916 – The German Army retreats from the Somme battlefield

Stage Four: 1917

By 1917, the war was taking a great toll on the European powers. Britain’s allies were buckling under the immense pressure, with mutinies in the French army and the forced abdication of the Russian tsar when troops in Petrograd refused to fire on protestors and joined the revolution. Pressure on German supply lines caused them to relinquish some territory but the allies still couldn’t break through the Hindenburg line the following month, despite the valiant Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge. Haig once again planned a major offensive to end the war but the results of the 3rd Battle of Ypres bore similarity to the Somme; after months of fighting, only seven miles had been gained and casualties reached 260,000 for both sides. The unusually wet summer made No Man’s Land virtually impassable and many men drowned in the mud. As the year ended, the Battle of Cambrai saw the allies using more accurate artillery and reliable tanks, but ultimately, the deadlock remained.

Key dates include:

March 1917 – Abdication of Tsar Nicholas II

April 1917 – The Battle of Arras

April 1917- The USA declare war on Germany

July-Nov 1917 – The 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele)

November 1917 – The Battle of Cambrai

Stage Five: January to November 1918

The final year of the conflict should be seen in two clear stages, as both sides became determined to end the fighting through victory. Pressure on the German economy and the increasing discontent amongst both the army and civilian population encouraged the German High Command to order a major offensive. This was immensely successful, with advances made to within ten miles of Amiens and the regaining of all territory taken by the allies during the course of 1917. The Germans were also buoyed by the news of a peace treaty with Russia, which would soon allow for the redeployment of troops from the Eastern Front. However, by July the German Army was exhausted, having suffered 800,000 losses in just four months. The British just managed to hold the line at Ypres and the Germans became vulnerable to counter-attack. Using an effective creeping barrage and two thousand highly accurate artillery guns, Australian and Canadian troops began breaking through the German trench lines in the Battle of Amiens and by the end of September, the 46th Division of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) had breached the Hindenburg line. At this point, the German generals recognised that the war was lost and began informing the government; this led to the Kaiser’s abdication and the armistice of November 1918.

Key dates include:

March 1918 – The Treaty of Brest Litovsk ends the war between the Soviet Union and Germany

March 1918 – The German Spring Offensive begins

July 1918 – The Spring Offensive is halted

8th August 1918 – Black Day for the German Army (30,000 losses)

29th September 1918 – Allied troops break through the Hindenburg Line

11th November 1918 – The armistice is signed between allied and German troops