Voices in Wartime

Reasons for War

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the world was festering with greed, fear, unhappiness, confusion, and a dynamic surge of nationalism at the beginning of the 20th century. The actual First World War might have begun in 1914, but its roots went back decades. As with other wars, the Great War was complex and a number of issues precipitated its beginning. However, before delving into history, let’s begin with 1914 and get a good view of Europe.


In 1914, the great powers of Europe wasdivided into two groups: the Triple Alliance made up of Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary and the Triple Entente comprised of Britain, France and Russia. Historically, Germany and Austria belonged to the Holy Roman Empire and both countries spoke the same language, German. Italy was a neighbor to both countries and felt that being an ally of Germany, in particular, would safeguard her borders from any outside trouble. Equally Austria was having multiple problems with her Eastern Balkan territories and felt secure in having Germany back her if this trouble resulted in military intervention. The German army was viewed as the most powerful on mainland Europe.   An important thing to keep in mind about an alliance is that each member declares allegiance to the other, meaning that in a time of conflict or war, they will come to each other’s aid.

The Triple Entente was structured differently. Entente is a French word that means an agreement or understanding between countries. Entente usually implies support but not necessarily the unconditional promise of a country to get involved in a war for the other country or countries. Like Germany, Great Britain had strong protective forces. Unlike Germany, Great Britain’s strength rested in her navy. However, combined, the French and British armies could equalize the German forces, a fact that gave some comfort to England since the Germans were seen putting new emphasis on building a strong naval fleet. An unusual member of the Entente was Russia. Geographically it was far from France and England, but nonetheless, it was a key player. Russia was ruled by the Romanovs, who had ties to Britain’s royal family. Russia also had a large military force and could provide a strong defense on Europe’s eastern borders.
Another important concept to keep in mind is that Great Britain had huge territorial holdings. An old saying, “the sun never set on the British Empire,” indicated that Britain controlled one-quarter of the global community from the western through the eastern hemispheres. It was this ownership that earned England the honorific title, “Great Britain.”

Map of Europe Before the War

Activity: Europe Before the War

The map above gives a picture of Europe prior to World War I. Working with the map, answer the questions posed here: 

  1. What countries were vulnerable because of their geographic location to the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente?
  2. What current European countries did not exist prior to World War I? Consult a map of modern Europe to help answer this question.
  3. What recent European conflicts still involve territory that was central to the First World War?


Control of Africa

Years Leading Up to the Great War

The Control of Africa

From the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the war in 1914, Europe had her eyes firmly set on the continent of Africa. Greed for resources and strategic positioning, and just being able to lay claim to land, was the goal of a number of European countries, including Belgium, England, France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, and Spain. Colonization started in a big way in the 1870s and continued until 1914.   By the end of 1914, Africa was carved up by Europe, with Abyssinia and Liberia its only independent countries.


 Activity: Colonial Africa

The map above of Africa shows how Europe successfully partitioned the continent in under thirty years. Review the map and fill in the chart below indicating what European nation claimed what portions of Africa. A few examples have been completed for you.

Belgian Congo
Rio Muni

Naval Might

HMS Dreadnought

Britain as an island nation felt itself justified in maintaining a large naval fleet. In its thinking, it accepted Germany’s need as a land-based country to support a large army. However, when Germany began to increase its naval forces, Britain took on the challenge. Enormous amounts of money were spent to build new warships. Britain’s first modern battleship, the Dreadnought, took to the seas in 1906. Germany wasted no time in building a similar battleship and the race to control the seas began. With the naval race in full acceleration, tension between the two superpowers increased.

While the First World War might bring to the forefront images of raging trench fighting and battle encounters, the war was also fought on oceans, seas, and rivers. Countries, including the United States, recruited men specifically for their naval fleets. The illustrations shown on the next page are a few of many campaign posters created for the U.S. Navy. If you find yourself interested in learning more about the marine portion of the First World War, you may want to research and prepare a report on any of the topics listed here: 

Further Investigation: The Maritime War 
  • The Austro-Hungarian Danube Flotilla
  • The Austro-Hungarian Submarine Force
  • The British Grand Fleet
  • The Imperial Russian Navy
  • The Royal Canadian Navy
  • The United States Navy 
Your report can be supported by illustrations of battleships, synopsis of battles and other encounters (for example: the sinking of the Lusitania), reports on personalities and maps showing location of confrontation.

Naval Recruitment

Activity and Further Investigation: Navy Recruitment

The three posters above were commissioned by the U.S. Navy to get recruits. The first two were issued during the war, and the third just after the war. Political posters can also be called propaganda posters. Propaganda falls into many different types. Some, but not all of them are: appeal to authority, bandwagon, euphemism, fear, glittering generalities, logical fallacies, name-calling, obtain disapproval, plain folks, rewards, scapegoating, stereotyping, testimonial, transfer, and use of “virtue” words. Take time to see if you can define each of these types of propaganda before you complete the activities below. Use the three poster examples above to answer the questions below.  

  1. How would you define propaganda?
  2. How does propaganda work on an individual’s emotions and spark a desired behavior?
  3. Is propaganda used only in troubled times? Provide examples of your thinking?
  4. Define in your own words the different categories of propaganda. Refer to the Internet Resources in the Bibliography to check your ideas or use a dictionary.
  5. What type(s) of propaganda is used in the first two posters, “Only the Navy Can Stop This” and “The Sword is Drawn The Navy Upholds It!”?
  6. What emotions are elicited from the third poster, “A Wonderful Opportunity for You?”
  7. Research First World War posters. Try and locate as many different types of propaganda employed. Posters were created not only for recruitment but for other activities associated with the war (i.e., increased production, helping on the home front, redefining the role of women, medical needs, etc.). Britain, France, and Germany also produced a variety of posters. Check the Internet Resources section in the Bibliography to help get you started on this activity. You might want to print the various posters and provide an analysis for each illustration.


Sassoon on the Great War

"The Great War"

Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land
Drawing no dividend from time's tomorrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and pictures shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

From the Poem “Dreamers” by Siegfried Sassoon