11 November 1918: At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Great War ends. At 5 a.m. that morning, Germany, bereft of manpower and supplies and faced with imminent invasion, signed an armistice agreement with the Allies in a railroad car outside Compiégne, France. The First World War left nine million soldiers dead and 21 million wounded, with Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Great Britain each losing nearly a million or more lives. In addition, at least five million civilians died from disease, starvation, or exposure.
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 Austro-Hungarian 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.
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, 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.
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.