U-boat devastates British squadron

Year
1914
Month Day
September 22

In the North Sea, the German U-9 submarine sinks three British cruisers, the Aboukir, the Hogue and the Cressy, in just over one hour. The one-sided battle, during which 1,400 British sailors lost their lives, alerted the British to the deadly effectiveness of the submarine, which had been generally unrecognized up to that time.

The German U-boat was a submarine far more sophisticated than those built by other nations at the time. The typical U-boat was 214 feet long, carried 35 men and 12 torpedoes, and could travel underwater for two hours at a time. In the first few years of World War I, the U-boats took a terrible toll on Allied shipping. Germany’s quarantine of the British Isles was almost successful, but in 1917 unrestricted U-boat attacks on neutral American vessels traveling to Britain prompted the U.S. entrance into the war. The infusion of American ships, troops and arms into World War I turned the tide of the war against Germany.

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Panama Canal open to traffic

Year
1914
Month Day
August 15

The American-built waterway across the Isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is inaugurated with the passage of the U.S. vessel Ancon, a cargo and passenger ship.

The rush of settlers to California and Oregon in the mid 19th century was the initial impetus of the U.S. desire to build an artificial waterway across Central America. In 1855, the United States completed a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama (then part of Colombia), prompting various parties to propose canal-building plans. Ultimately, Colombia awarded rights to build the canal to Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French entrepreneur who had completed the Suez Canal in 1869. Construction on a sea-level canal began in 1881, but inadequate planning, disease among the workers, and financial problems drove Lesseps’ company into bankruptcy in 1889. Three years later, Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, a former chief engineer of the canal works and a French citizen, acquired the assets of the defunct French company.

READ MORE: 7 Fascinating Facts About the Panama Canal 

By the turn of the century, sole possession of the isthmian canal became imperative to the United States, which had acquired an overseas empire at the end of the Spanish-American War and sought the ability to move warships and commerce quickly between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In 1902, the U.S. Congress authorized purchase of the French canal company (pending a treaty with Colombia), and allocated funding for the canal’s construction. In 1903, the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty was signed with Columbia, granting the U.S. use of the territory in exchange for financial compensation. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, but the Colombian Senate, fearing a loss of sovereignty, refused.

In response, President Theodore Roosevelt gave tacit approval to a Panamanian independence movement, which was engineered in large part by Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla and his canal company. On November 3, 1903, a faction of Panamanians issued a declaration of independence from Colombia. The U.S.-administered railroad removed its trains from the northern terminus of Colón, thus stranding Colombian troops sent to crush the rebellion. Other Colombian forces were discouraged from marching on Panama by the arrival of U.S. warship Nashville.

On November 6, the United States recognized the Republic of Panama, and on November 18 the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was signed with Panama, granting the U.S. exclusive and permanent possession of the Panama Canal Zone. In exchange, Panama received $10 million and an annuity of $250,000 beginning nine years later. The treaty was negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and Bunau-Varilla, who had been given plenipotentiary powers to negotiate on behalf of Panama. Almost immediately, the treaty was condemned by many Panamanians as an infringement on their country’s new national sovereignty.

In 1906, American engineers decided on the construction of a lock canal, and the next three years were spent developing construction facilities and eradicating tropical diseases in the area. In 1909, construction proper began. In one of the largest construction projects of all time, U.S. engineers moved nearly 240 million cubic yards of earth and spent close to $400 million in constructing the 40-mile-long canal (or 51 miles long, if the deepened seabed on both ends of the canal is taken into account). On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal was opened to traffic.

Panama later pushed to revoke the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, and in 1977 U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos signed a treaty to turn over the canal to Panama by the end of the century. A peaceful transfer occurred at noon on December 31, 1999.

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First World War erupts

Year
1914
Month Day
August 01

Four days after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Germany and Russia declare war against each other, France orders a general mobilization, and the first German army units cross into Luxembourg in preparation for the German invasion of France. During the next three days, Russia, France, Belgium and Great Britain all lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, and the German army invaded Belgium. The “Great War” that ensued was one of unprecedented destruction and loss of life, resulting in the deaths of some 20 million soldiers and civilians.

On June 28, 1914, in an event that is widely regarded as sparking the outbreak of World War I, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, was shot to death with his wife by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Ferdinand had been inspecting his uncle’s imperial armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite the threat of Serbian nationalists who wanted these Austro-Hungarian possessions to join newly independent Serbia. Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the attack and hoped to use the incident as justification for settling the problem of Slavic nationalism once and for all. However, as Russia supported Serbia, an Austria-Hungary declaration of war was delayed until its leaders received assurances from German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II that Germany would support their cause in the event of a Russian intervention.

READ MORE: Outbreak of World War I

On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the tenuous peace between Europe’s great powers collapsed. On July 29, Austro-Hungarian forces began to shell the Serbian capital of Belgrade, and Russia, Serbia’s ally, ordered a troop mobilization against Austria-Hungary. France, allied with Russia, began to mobilize on August 1. France and Germany declared war against each other on August 3. After crossing through neutral Luxembourg, the German army invaded Belgium on the night of August 3-4, prompting Great Britain, Belgium’s ally, to declare war against Germany.

For the most part, the people of Europe greeted the outbreak of war with jubilation. Most patriotically assumed that their country would be victorious within months. Of the initial belligerents, Germany was most prepared for the outbreak of hostilities, and its military leaders had formatted a sophisticated military strategy known as the “Schlieffen Plan,” which envisioned the conquest of France through a great arcing offensive through Belgium and into northern France. Russia, slow to mobilize, was to be kept occupied by Austro-Hungarian forces while Germany attacked France.

READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I

The Schlieffen Plan was nearly successful, but in early September the French rallied and halted the German advance at the bloody Battle of the Marne near Paris. By the end of 1914, well over a million soldiers of various nationalities had been killed on the battlefields of Europe, and neither for the Allies nor the Central Powers was a final victory in sight. On the western front–the battle line that stretched across northern France and Belgium–the combatants settled down in the trenches for a terrible war of attrition.

In 1915, the Allies attempted to break the stalemate with an amphibious invasion of Turkey, which had joined the Central Powers in October 1914, but after heavy bloodshed the Allies were forced to retreat in early 1916. The year 1916 saw great offensives by Germany and Britain along the western front, but neither side accomplished a decisive victory. In the east, Germany was more successful, and the disorganized Russian army suffered terrible losses, spurring the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917. By the end of 1917, the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia and immediately set about negotiating peace with Germany. In 1918, the infusion of American troops and resources into the western front finally tipped the scale in the Allies’ favor. Bereft of manpower and supplies and faced with an imminent invasion, Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies in November 1918.

World War I was known as the “war to end all wars” because of the great slaughter and destruction it caused. Unfortunately, the peace treaty that officially ended the conflict—the Treaty of Versailles of 1919—forced punitive terms on Germany that destabilized Europe and laid the groundwork for World War II.

READ MORE: Why Kaiser Wilhelm Was Never Tried for Starting World War I

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Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand assassinated

Year
1914
Month Day
June 28

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie are shot to death by a Bosnian Serb nationalist during an official visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The killings sparked a chain of events that led to the outbreak of World War I by early August. On June 28, 1919, five years to the day after Franz Ferdinand’s death, Germany and the Allied Powers signed the Treaty of Versailles, officially marking the end of World War I.

READ MORE: Did Franz Ferdinand’s Assassination Cause World War I?

The archduke traveled to Sarajevo in June 1914 to inspect the imperial armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908. The annexation had angered Serbian nationalists, who believed the territories should be part of Serbia. A group of young nationalists hatched a plot to kill the archduke during his visit to Sarajevo, and after some missteps, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip was able to shoot the royal couple at point-blank range, while they traveled in their official procession, killing both almost instantly.

The assassination set off a rapid chain of events, as Austria-Hungary immediately blamed the Serbian government for the attack. As large and powerful Russia supported Serbia, Austria asked for assurances that Germany would step in on its side against Russia and its allies, including France and possibly Great Britain. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the fragile peace between Europe’s great powers collapsed, beginning the devastating conflict now known as the First World War.

READ MORE: US Entry into World War I 

After more than four years of bloodshed, the Great War ended on November 11, 1918, after Germany, the last of the Central Powers, surrendered to the Allies. At the peace conference in Paris in 1919, Allied leaders would state their desire to build a post-war world that was safe from future wars of such enormous scale. The Versailles Treaty, signed on June 28, 1919, tragically failed to achieve this objective. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s grand dreams of an international peace-keeping organization faltered when put into practice as the League of Nations. Even worse, the harsh terms imposed on Germany, the war’s biggest loser, led to widespread resentment of the treaty and its authors in that country–a resentment that would culminate in the outbreak of the Second World War two decades later.

READ MORE: History Faceoff: Should the U.S. Have Entered World War I?

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The Christmas Truce


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Year
1914
Month Day
December 25

Just after midnight on Christmas morning, the majority of German troops engaged in World War I cease firing their guns and artillery and commence to sing Christmas carols. At certain points along the eastern and western fronts, the soldiers of Russia, France, and Britain even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing.

At the first light of dawn, many of the German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.

The so-called Christmas Truce of 1914 came only five months after the outbreak of war in Europe and was one of the last examples of the outdated notion of chivalry between enemies in warfare. In 1915, the bloody conflict of World War I erupted in all its technological fury, and the concept of another Christmas Truce became unthinkable.

READ MORE: What Happened When WWI Paused for Christmas
READ MORE: Letters Shed New Light on WWI’s Christmas Truce

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Pope Benedict XV named to papacy

Year
1914
Month Day
September 03

On September 3, 1914, barely a month after the outbreak of World War I, Giacomo della Chiesa is elected to the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming Pope Benedict XV.

An aristocratic native of Genoa, Italy, who had served as a cardinal since the previous May, Benedict succeeded Pius X, who died on August 20, 1914. He was elected by a constituency made up of cardinals from countries on both sides of the battle lines, because he professed strict neutrality in the conflict. Calling the Great War “the suicide of Europe,” Benedict became an insistent voice for peace from the beginning of his reign, though his calls were roundly ignored by the belligerent powers.

After proposing the idea of a general Christmas truce in 1914 without success—although some pauses in the fighting did occur spontaneously in various places along the Western Front that Christmas, initiated by the soldiers—Benedict began to lose influence even within Italy as that nation readied itself to join the war effort. In the months preceding Italy’s declaration of war on Austria-Hungary in May 1915, Benedict’s steady urging for peace was seen as interfering with the national will to fight. In the Treaty of London, which set the conditions for Italy’s participation in the war, the Allies agreed with Italy that any peace overtures from the Vatican to the Central Powers should be ignored.

On August 1, 1917, Benedict issued a seven-point peace proposal addressed to “the heads of the belligerent peoples.” In it, he expressed the need for a cessation of hostilities, general reduction of armaments, freedom of the seas and international arbitration of any territorial questions among the warring nations. The proposal was widely rejected by all the warring powers, which were by this point dedicated to an absolute victory and would not consider compromise. To make matters worse, both sides saw the Vatican as prejudiced in favor of the other and refused to accept the pope’s terms. This situation continued in the immediate post-armistice period, when despite its entreaties to be involved in the determination of the peace settlement, Benedict’s Vatican was excluded from the Paris Peace Conference, held at Versailles in 1919.

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Poet Alan Seeger volunteers in French army

Year
1914
Month Day
August 24

On August 24, 1914, the American poet Alan Seeger volunteers for service in the French Foreign Legion during the First World War.

Born in New York City in 1888, Seeger attended Harvard University, where his illustrious classmates in the Class of 1910 included the poet John Reed and the journalist Walter Lippmann. After living in New York writing poetry and working on the staff of the magazine American, edited by Reed, Seeger moved to Paris in 1912, where he lived on the Left Bank among a set of American expatriates until the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914.

On August 24 of that year, Seeger volunteered to serve as a private in the Foreign Legion of the French army. After training at Toulouse, his regiment was sent to the trenches of northern France, where to Seeger’s dismay they saw little actual combat. In a letter to the New York Sun written in December 1914, Seeger voices his frustration with life in the trenches: “This style of warfare is extremely modern and for the artillerymen is doubtless very interesting, but for the poor common soldier it is anything but romantic. His role is simply to dig himself a hole in the ground and to keep hidden in it as tightly as possible. Continually under the fire of the opposing batteries, he is yet never allowed to get a glimpse of the enemy. Exposed to all the dangers of war, but with none of its enthusiasms or splendid élan [spirit], he is condemned to sit like an animal in its burrow and hear the shells whistle over his head and take their little daily toll from his comrades.”

Seeger finally got his chance in September 1915, with the launch of a major new Allied offensive in Champagne, France. While awaiting orders to go forward, Seeger wrote home of his uncontainable excitement: “I expect to march right up the Aisne borne on an irresistible élan. It will be the greatest moment of my life.” Although the offensive ultimately failed, Seeger’s dedication to the French army continued. His unit spent much of the rest of 1915 and early 1916 on reserve, and bronchitis kept him out of service for several months. During that period he wrote what would become his most famous poem, “Rendezvous with Death,” with its oft-quoted lines: I have a rendezvous with death/On some scarred slope or battered hill/When Spring comes round again this year/And the first meadow-flowers appear.

On July 4, 1916, Alan Seeger died during the massive Allied attack at the Somme River, after being mortally wounded by a barrage of six German machine guns during his unit’s costly but successful assault on the heavily fortified village of Belloy-en-Santerre, France.

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Ottoman Empire declares a holy war

Year
1914
Month Day
November 14

On November 14, 1914, in Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire, the religious leader Sheikh-ul-Islam declares an Islamic holy war on behalf of the Ottoman government, urging his Muslim followers to take up arms against Britain, France, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro in World War I.

By the time the Great War broke out in the summer of 1914, the Ottoman Empire was faltering, having lost much of its once considerable territory in Europe with its defeat in the First Balkan War two years earlier. Seeking to ally themselves with one of the great European powers to help safeguard them against future loss, the ambitious Ottoman leaders–members of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), known collectively as the Young Turks–responded favorably to overtures made by Germany in August 1914. Though Germany and Turkey secretly concluded a military alliance on August 2, the Turks did not officially take part in World War I until several months later. On October 29, the Ottoman navy–including two German ships, Goeben and Breslau, which famously eluded the British navy in the first week of the war to reach Constantinople–attacked Russian ports in the Black Sea, marking the beginning of Turkey’s participation in the war.

The sheikh’s declaration of a holy war, made two weeks later, urged Muslims all over the world—including in the Allied countries—to rise up and defend the Ottoman Empire, as a protector of Islam, against its enemies. “Of those who go to the Jihad for the sake of happiness and salvation of the believers in God’s victory,” the declaration read, “the lot of those who remain alive is felicity, while the rank of those who depart to the next world is martyrdom. In accordance with God’s beautiful promise, those who sacrifice their lives to give life to the truth will have honor in this world, and their latter end is paradise.”

READ MORE: Outbreak of World War I

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Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Czar Nicholas of Russia exchange telegrams

Year
1914
Month Day
July 29

In the early hours of July 29, 1914, Czar Nicholas II of Russia and his first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, begin a frantic exchange of telegrams regarding the newly erupted war in the Balkan region and the possibility of its escalation into a general European war.

One day prior, Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia, one month after the assassination in Sarajevo of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Serbian nationalist. In the wake of the killings, Germany had promised Austria-Hungary its unconditional support in whatever punitive action it chose to take towards Serbia, regardless of whether or not Serbia’s powerful ally, Russia, stepped into the conflict. By the time an ultimatum from Vienna to Serbia was rejected on July 25, Russia, defying Austro-German expectations, had already ordered preliminary mobilization to begin, believing that Berlin was using the assassination crisis as a pretext to launch a war to shore up its power in the Balkans.

The relationship between Nicholas and Wilhelm, two grandsons of Britain’s Queen Victoria, had long been a rocky one. Though Wilhelm described himself as Victoria’s favorite grandson, the great queen in turn warned Nicholas to be careful of Wilhelm’s “mischievous and unstraight-forward proceedings.” Victoria did not invite the kaiser, who she described to her prime minister as “a hot-headed, conceited, and wrong-headed young man,” to her Diamond Jubilee celebration in 1897, nor her 80th birthday two years later. Czar Nicholas himself commented in 1902 after a meeting with Wilhelm: “He’s raving mad!” Now, however, the two cousins stood at the center of the crisis that would soon escalate into the First World War.

READ MORE: Outbreak of World War I 

“In this serious moment, I appeal to you to help me,” Czar Nicholas wrote to the kaiser in a telegram sent at one o’clock on the morning of July 29. “An ignoble war has been declared to a weak country. The indignation in Russia shared fully by me is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war.” This message crossed with one from Wilhelm to Nicholas expressing concern about the effect of Austria’s declaration in Russia and urging calm and consideration as a response.

After receiving the czar’s telegram, Wilhelm cabled back: “I…share your wish that peace should be maintained. But…I cannot consider Austria’s action against Serbia an ‘ignoble’ war. Austria knows by experience that Serbian promises on paper are wholly unreliable. I understand its action must be judged as trending to get full guarantee that the Serbian promises shall become real facts…I therefore suggest that it would be quite possible for Russia to remain a spectator of the Austro-Serbian conflict without involving Europe in the most horrible war she ever witnessed.” Though Wilhelm assured the czar that the German government was working to broker an agreement between Russia and Austria-Hungary, he warned that if Russia were to take military measures against Austria, war would be the result.

The telegram exchange continued over the next few days, as the two men spoke of their desire to preserve peace, even as their respective countries continued mobilizing for war. On July 30, the kaiser wrote to Nicholas: “I have gone to the utmost limits of the possible in my efforts to save peace….Even now, you can still save the peace of Europe by stopping your military measures.” The following day, Nicholas replied: “It is technically impossible to stop our military preparations which were obligatory owing to Austria’s mobilization. We are far from wishing for war. As long as the negotiations with Austria on Serbia’s account are taking place my troops shall not make any provocative action. I give you my solemn word for this.” But by that time things had gone too far: Emperor Franz Josef had rejected the kaiser’s mediation offer, saying it came too late, as Russia had already mobilized and Austrian troops were already marching on Serbia.

The German ambassador to Russia delivered an ultimatum that night—halt the mobilization within 12 hours, or Germany would begin its own mobilization, a step that would logically proceed to war. By four o’clock in the afternoon of August 1, in Berlin, no reply had come from Russia. At a meeting with Germany’s civilian and military leaders—Chancellor Theobald Bethmann von Hollweg and General Erich von Falkenhayn—Kaiser Wilhelm agreed to sign the mobilization orders.

That same day, in his last contribution to what were dubbed the “Willy-Nicky” telegrams, Czar Nicholas pressed the kaiser for assurance that his mobilization did not definitely mean war. Wilhelm’s response was dismissive. “I yesterday pointed out to your government the way by which alone war may be avoided….I have…been obliged to mobilize my army. Immediate affirmative clear and unmistakable answer from your government is the only way to avoid endless misery. Until I have received this answer alas, I am unable to discuss the subject of your telegram. As a matter of fact I must request you to immediatly [sic] order your troops on no account to commit the slightest act of trespassing over our frontiers.” Germany declared war on Russia that same day.

READ MORE: Why Kaiser Wilhelm Was Never Tried for Starting World War I

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French general gives order to attack at the Marne

Year
1914
Month Day
September 05

On the evening of September 5, 1914, General Joseph Joffre, commander in chief of the French army during World War I, readies his troops for a renewed offensive against the advancing Germans at the Marne River in northeastern France, set to begin the following morning.

With the French 6th Army poised to begin an attack from its position against the right flank of the German 1st Army to the northeast of Paris, Joffre was under pressure from Paris’ military governor, General Joseph-Simon Gallieni, to launch a general offensive in support of the attack. On September 3, Joffre made the difficult decision to replace the commander of the 5th Army, General Charles Lanrezac, punishing him for his caution in ordering a retreat at the Battle of Charleroi on August 22-24—which had in fact saved the French left wing from envelopment by the Germans—and replacing him with the more aggressive General Louis Franchet d’Esperey.

The French planned for the 5th Army, having crossed the Marne River east of Paris with the Germans in hot pursuit, to launch a coordinated attack with the 6th Army on the two advancing German armies: the 1st, under General Alexander von Kluck, and the 2nd, led by General Karl von Bulow. To ensure the attack’s success, however, the French wanted the support of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), under the command of Field Marshal Sir John French, who was still coordinating his army’s retreat after its defeat in the Battle of Mons, also on August 24.

At ten o’clock on the night of September 4, Joffre signed the order authorizing the 6th Army’s attack. By the next morning, however, he was still uncertain about the commitment of the British troops. At a meeting later that afternoon, in French’s headquarters, Joffre pleaded with his British counterpart to authorize his troops to join in the attack, promising that the BEF would be supported on either side by the French 5th and 6th Armies. The “supreme moment” had arrived, Joffre insisted, and “the future of Europe” was on the line. “I cannot believe the British Army will refuse to do its share in this supreme crisis….The honor of England is at stake!” After struggling to answer in French, a visibly emotional British commander in chief gave up, reportedly exclaiming to one of his officers: “Damn it, I can’t explain. Tell him that all that men can do, our fellows will do.”

That night, Joffre signed the order proclaiming the attack at the Marne, to be read to his troops the next morning: “At the moment when the battle upon which hangs the fate of France is about to begin, all must remember that the time for looking back is past; every effort must be concentrated on attacking and throwing the enemy back….Under present conditions no weakness can be tolerated.” The decisive four-day-long Battle of the Marne would end in an Allied victory, halting the month-long German advance and sparking a growing recognition on both sides that the war would go on longer than either had anticipated.

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