World War I was a global war that mostly raged in Europe. It began with the declaration of war by Germany against Russia on August 1, 1914, and ended with an armistice on November 11, 1918 and finally concluded in the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. The end of the war came about as much from mutual exhaustion and the beginning of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic as from military victory … a consideration that would have unfortunate results in the 1930s.
Arguably not the first world war - that title probably properly belongs to the Seven Year's War or one of the Napoleonic Wars1, but it seems that the name has stuck. Also known as The Great War … although World War II was greater in most aspects. Often seen in historical context as unfinished - one leg of a match in which WW2 was the return.
The period of WWI is mainly known for being where obsolete military doctrine met new technology and carnage resulted - mostly in the mud of the Western European Front and the dust of The Dardanelles, other fronts being more ambiguous in their lessons learnt. It was the war in which the machine gun proved itself significant at last and in which the tank was born. The shotgun and grenade reappeared as military weapons and the submachinegun was invented. Old infantry tactics were discarded and new ones born. Powered aircraft were developed from curiosities into usable technology and various other lessons were learnt, including the one about chemical weapons being unpleasant and not terribly effective.
Socially the war had important consequences - the vast carnage amongst all classes set up social change in most participating nations, not least that women were brought into formal employment on a greater scale than ever before and the case for women's suffrage strengthened thereby. The European aristocracy and gentry suffered proportionally far higher casualties than lower classes and their grip on political power was fatally weakened and the discharge of thousands of disgruntled men with military training at the end of the war both strengthened the labour movements and lead to the beginnings of oppressive laws against the private ownership of weapons in European countries.
Internationally, America was elevated from a regional power with a tiny military to an incipient Great Power and the Russian government collapsed, plunging the nation into a horrific civil war and a still more horrific communist hegemony. The remaining Great Powers suffered terribly from manpower depletion, social disturbance and near bankruptcy … factors which would feed the Great Depression of the 1930s … and with their decreased powers the peace and stability of the Colonial Era began to end.
France was particularly badly hit - to the extent that she was still feeling the demoralisation when WW2 started - and Germany, brutally treated by the victorious allies, was set on the path to WW2.
Game and Story Use
- Often overshadowed by the more recent and spectacular World War II, World War I nevertheless offers plenty of opportunities for adventures.
- Flanders and the Western Front are probably the most famous venues, possibly drawing with Gallipoli for people from the British Dominions, but PCs can be sent to the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucuses, Africa or even Russia. There is also plenty of opportunity for Germans to play commerce raiding seamen, either in surface warships, primitive U-boats or auxilary cruisers … and for allied PCs to hunt them or lie in wait aboard Q-ships. For intrigue in a neutral area, China is probably your best bet - ideal for an early pulp era campaign.
- A lot of characters in a classic Call of Cthulhu campaign will have served in WW1 - it was a popular motif in Lovecraft's work.
- Having fought in the Great War makes a good background for adventurers in any Pulp Era campaign
- WW1 segues easily into the Russian Civil War, the Polish-Bolshevik War and various intrigues in China and Central Asia … PCs who start fighting in a 'proper war' could easily find that for them, the war is not over in 1918 but instead they are sent to the back of beyond to fight in a murky, badly run debacle in which they have no stake. In some cases their former enemies will now be allies and vice versa.