This collection of World War I essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors. These questions can also be used for short answer responses, research tasks, homework and revision activities. If you would like to suggest a question for this page, please contact Alpha History.
The world before 1914
2. How did the leadership of Otto von Bismarck shape the future of Germany to 1914?
3. What were the outcomes of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71? How did these outcomes shape late 19th and early 20th century European relations?
4. Explain how the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ethnic, cultural and language diversity created problems for the ruling Hapsburg dynasty.
5. Why was the Ottoman Empire considered the ‘sick man of Europe’? How did its problems affect or concern major European powers?
6. Compare and contrast the British, French and German Empires at the beginning of the 20th century.
7. Explain how militarism shaped and affected politics, economics and society in Germany to 1914. How democratic and representative was German government during this period?
8. How did imperialism and imperial rivalry contribute to European tensions between 1871 and 1914?
9. Discuss three alliances of the 19th and early 20th centuries, describing how each alliance affected European relations.
10. Bismarck famously said that a European war would start from “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans”. What “foolish things” happened in this region in the decade before World War I – and how did they affect European relations?
The road to war
1. Identify and discuss the three most significant factors leading to the outbreak of World War I.
2. Investigate and discuss the ‘war readiness’ and military strengths and weaknesses of Europe’s major powers in 1914.
3. What was Weltpolitik and how did it contribute to European tensions to 1914?
4. “Kaiser Wilhelm II was more responsible for the outbreak of World War I than any other individual leader.” To what extent is this statement true?
5. In the early 1900s many believed England and Germany had much in common and should have been allies, not antagonists. What were the sources or reasons for Anglo-German tension prior to 1914?
6. Investigate the relationship between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in the years prior to 1914. Why was Serbian nationalism worrying for Austro-Hungarian leaders?
7. Austria considered Serbia wholly responsible for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. To what extent was the Serbian government truly responsible?
8. It is often said that the alliance system made a major war inevitable. Did alliances alone compel European nations to war after June 1914 – or were other factors involved?
9. Many historians suggest that the ‘failure of diplomacy’ led to war in 1914. What attempts did European diplomats make to negotiate and avoid war, and why did these attempts fail?
10. What do the ‘Nicky and Willy telegrams’ (between the Russian tsar and German kaiser) reveal about the character and leadership of both men?
11. Were the Kaiser and his advisors anticipating a European war that involved Britain? Explain how Britain became entangled in the road to war in mid 1914.
12. Focusing on three different countries, describe how the press and the public responded to declarations of war in August 1914.
13. Investigate anti-war sentiment in 1914. Which groups and individuals wrote, spoke or campaigned against war? What arguments did they put forward?
14. Explain why the small nation of Belgium became so crucial, both in July and August 1914.
15. Why did the Ottoman Empire enter World War I? What were its objectives and how prepared was it for a major war?
Battles and battle fronts
2. What were the outcomes of the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in 1914? What did these battles reveal about the Russian military?
3. What happened at the first Battle of the Marne in 1914? What were the outcomes of this battle and what influence did it have on the rest of the war?
4. Compare the Western Front and Eastern Front as theatres of war. What were the similarities and differences in warfare on these two fronts?
5. How did naval power and the war on the seas shape the course of World War I? Refer to at least three major battles or incidents in your answer.
6. Why did the Allies consider the Dardanelles of strategic importance? Explain why the Dardanelles campaign of 1915 was a failure for the Allies.
7. What were the main objectives of the war in the Middle East? Discuss at least three significant locations or battles in your answer.
8. Why did Italy enter World War I in 1915? Where did most Italian troops fight and what impact did the war have on Italy?
9. Explain why the Battle of the Somme was such a significant operation, particularly for British forces.
10. Germany’s strategy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ was largely responsible for bringing the United States into the war. Was it a reasonable or justifiable policy? Why was it adopted?
Methods of warfare
2. It is often said that British soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”. To what extent was this really true?
3. Explain why trench warfare became the dominant form of warfare on the Western Front.
4. What was life like for the average trench soldier? What were the duties, routines and rotations for those who served in the trenches?
5. Evaluate the use and impact of chemical weapons in World War I. Were they an important weapon of war – or were they used for terror and shock value?
6. Prior to 1914 cavalry (horse-mounted soldiers) were an important feature of most armies. Did cavalry regiments play any significant role in World War I?
7. Using evidence and referring to specific battles or events, explain which three weapons had the greatest impact on the battlefields of the Western Front.
8. How were aircraft like planes and airships used in World War I? Did these machines have any impact on the war and its outcomes – or were they a sideshow to the real fighting on the ground?
9. Tanks are one of the most significant weapons to emerge from World War I. Investigate and discuss the development, early use and effectiveness of tanks in the war.
10. The Hague Convention outlined the ‘rules of war’ that were in place during World War I. Referring to specific examples, discuss where and how these ‘rules of war’ were breached.
1. How did the public in Britain and other nations respond to the outbreak of war in August 1914? Was there unanimous support for the war?
2. What impact did Kaiser Wilhelm II have on military strategy and domestic policy after August 1914? How effective was the Kaiser as a wartime leader?
3. What powers did the Defence of the Realm Act give the British government? How did the Act affect life and work in wartime Britain?
4. Referring to either Britain, France or Germany, discuss how one national government managed and coordinated the war effort.
5. Investigate voluntary enlistment figures in one nation after August 1914. When and why did voluntary enlistment fall? What steps did the government take to encourage volunteers to enlist?
6. Focusing on three different nations, discuss when and why conscription was introduced – and whether this attracted any criticism or opposition.
7. What was the Shell Crisis of 1915? What impact did this crisis have on the British government and its wartime strategy?
8. Using specific examples, explain how wartime governments used censorship and propaganda to strengthen the war effort.
9. Why was there a change of wartime government in Britain in late 1916?
10. What was the ‘Silent Dictatorship’ in wartime Germany? How effective was this regime in managing both the war effort and the domestic situation?
Towards a conclusion
2. How did the leadership of Lloyd George (Britain) and Clemenceau (France) invigorate the war effort in their countries?
3. Discuss the issues and problems raised by conscription in Australia and Canada. Why was compulsory military service accepted in Europe but not in those two countries?
4. Why did the government of Tsar Nicholas II collapse in February and March 1917? How did the war help bring about revolution in Russia?
5. To what extent was the United States able to honour its pledge of neutrality in 1914-16?
6. Was the entry of the United States into World War I inevitable? Or was it a consequence of unforeseen factors?
7. What happened in the German Reichstag in July 1917? What did this reveal about German attitudes to the war?
8. What impact did the Allied naval blockade have on German society and the German war effort?
9. Explain the terms and effects of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed in March 1918. What implications did this treaty have, both for Russia and the war in general?
10. What did German commanders hope to achieve by launching the Spring Offensive? What problems or obstacles did they face?
Treaties and post-war Europe
2. Describe how the map of Europe was changed as a consequence of World War I and post-war treaties. What grievances might have arisen from these changes?
3. Explain the fate of the Hapsburg dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the conclusion of World War I.
4. What happened to the Ottoman Empire and its territories after World War I? Describe its transition from a 19th century empire to the modern nation-state of Turkey.
5. A French general said of the Treaty of Versailles that was not a peace but a “20 year armistice”. Was he correct and, if so, why?
6. Why was Article 231 included in the Treaty of Versailles? What was the response to this particular clause, both in Germany and around the world?
7. Discuss what happened to European colonial possessions after World War I. Were colonies retained, seized by other nations or liberated?
8. How did the United States respond to the Treaty of Versailles? What were the global implications of this American response?
9. How effective was the newly formed League of Nations at resolving conflict and securing world peace?
10. Investigate and discuss the social effects of World War I in at least two countries. How did ordinary people live, during and after the war?
11. How did World War I affect the social, political and economic status of women?
The Conscription Crisis of 1917 (French: Crise de la conscription de 1917) was a political and military crisis in Canada during World War I. It was mainly caused by disagreement on whether men should be conscripted to fight in the war. It also brought out many issues regarding relations between French Canadians and English Canadians and motivated many revolutionary acts.
Main article: Military history of Canada during World War I
Canada entered World War I on 4 August 1914. Colonel Sam Hughes was the Canadian Minister of Militia, and on 10 August he was permitted to create a militia of 25,000 men. Before the end of August 1914, Hughes had already created a training camp at Valcartier, Quebec, which was capable of housing 32,000 men. The first contingent of 31,200 Canadians, dubbed "Canada's Answer", arrived in Britain on October 14 for continued training. Hughes moved with incredible speed to create Canadian battalions which allowed Canadian troops to be kept together as units for the first time.
Relatively few French Canadians volunteered. The experience of the first contingent suggested that they could expect nothing but ill-treatment as French-speaking Catholics in English-speaking battalions filled with what they perceived as mostly Protestant men and officers who were unable to communicate with them. Young French Canadians seeking to serve, chose, instead, the few traditional "French" regiments of the Canadian militia, such as Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, where barracks life was in French, and only the command language was in English. They had to be turned away because the Minister of Militia and his subordinates were obstinate in their refusal to mobilise these traditionally French regiments or to create new ones. However, the government continued to raise its expectations for volunteers, aiming for 150,000 men by 1915. English Canadians did not believe that French Canada was providing a fair share to the war effort. Sam Hughes, in June 1917, informed the House of Commons that of the 432,000 Canadian volunteers fewer than 5% came from French Canada, which made up 28% of the Canadian population at that time. There have been many reasons proposed for the lack of Québécois volunteers; however, many prominent Canadian historians suggest that the Ontario government's move to disallow French language instruction in Regulation 17 as the main reason.
Political pressure in Quebec, along with some public rallies, demanded the creation of French-speaking units to fight a war that was viewed as being right and necessary by many Quebecers, despite Regulation 17 in Ontario and the resistance in Quebec of those such as Henri Bourassa. Indeed, Montreal's La Presse editorialised that Quebec should create a contingent to fight as part of the French Army. When the government relented, the first new unit was the 22nd (French Canadian) Battalion, CEF. While a few other French-speaking groups were also allowed to be created, mostly by Reserve officers, they were all disbanded to provide replacements for the 22nd, which suffered close to 4,000 wounded and killed in the course of the war.
As the war dragged on, soldiers and politicians soon realised there would be no quick end. Eventually, people learned of the trench conditions and some casualties in Europe, and men stopped volunteering. There were over 300,000 recruits by 1916, but Prime MinisterRobert Borden had promised 500,000 by the end of that year, even though Canada's population was only 8 million at the time.
Conscription Crisis 1917
After the Battle of the Somme, Canada was in desperate need to replenish its supply of soldiers; however, there were very few volunteers to replace them. The recruiting effort in Quebec had failed, and Canada turned to its only remaining option: conscription.
Almost all French Canadians opposed conscription; they felt that they had no particular loyalty to either Britain or France. Led by Henri Bourassa, they felt their only loyalty was to Canada. English Canadians supported the war effort as they felt stronger ties to the British Empire. The Conscription Crisis of 1917 caused a considerable rift along ethnic lines between Anglophones and Francophones.
After visiting Britain for a meeting of First Ministers in May 1917, Borden announced that he would introduce the Military Service Act on August 29, 1917. The Act was passed: allowing the government to conscript men across the country if the Prime Minister felt that it was necessary.
The election of 1917
To solidify support for conscription in the 1917 election, Borden extended the vote through the Military Voters Act to overseas soldiers, who were in favour of conscription to replace their depleted forces (women serving as nurses were also given the right to vote). For Borden, these votes had another advantage, as they could be distributed in any riding, regardless of the soldier's regular place of residence. With the Wartime Elections Act, women who were the wives, sisters, daughters and mothers of men serving overseas were also granted the right to vote in this election, as they appeared to be more patriotic and more worthy of a public voice. On the other hand, conscientious objectors and recent immigrants from "enemy countries" were denied the right to vote. In the election, Borden was opposed not only by Bourassa but also by Liberal Party leader Wilfrid Laurier, though he had been abandoned by much of his party. Laurier had opposed conscription from the beginning of the war, arguing that an intense campaign for volunteers would produce enough troops. He privately felt that if he joined the coalition government, Quebec would fall under what he perceived as a dangerous nationalism of Bourassa, which might ultimately lead to Quebec leaving the Canadian confederation.
Borden's Unionist Party won the election with 153 seats; Laurier's Liberals secured 82 seats, 62 from Quebec.
Conscription in practice
After the Military Service Act was passed in 1917 tensions ran high throughout Canada. Not all Canadians were as enthusiastic about joining the war effort as the first Canadian volunteers had been. In fact, many people objected to the idea of war completely. The conscientious objectors or unwilling soldiers sought exemption from combat. Instead, many joined the Non-Combatant Corps, where they took on other roles. Their duties consisted of cleaning and other labour. They did not carry weapons but were expected to dress in uniform, and they practised regular army discipline. Often the conscientious objector was abused, deemed a coward, and stripped of basic rights. In the British House of Commons a resolution for the disenfranchisement of conscientious objectors was defeated by 141 to 71. Lord Hugh Cecil, who was a well-known churchman and statesman, said that he was “entirely out of sympathy for conscientious objectors, but he could not force them to do what they thought was wrong or punish them for refusing to do something they thought was wrong.”
However, the government was making an effort to be sympathetic toward those who refused to take part in military service. Many communities set up local tribunals. If a man refused to serve he was put in front of a panel of two judges: one appointed by a board of selection named by Parliament, and the other by the senior county judge. The man was to plead his case, and if the panel was not convinced, the man asking for exemption was allowed to appeal. If the judges found that it was best if the person stayed at home, then he was not sent overseas. Many Canadians were unhappy with the conscientious objectors' choice to refuse combat. Many people believed that if people were not willing to give service against the enemy, then the only choice for them was between civil or military prisons.
Conscription posed a difficult question for the government. Conscription was unprecedented, and the problem proved to be that the government did not know who was best suited to become a soldier, a toolmaker or a farmer. The issue of manpower and ensuring that the proper men were being relocated to the most appropriate roles overseas was an issue that lasted the duration of the war.
Imperialism and nationalism
Even though 35,000 French Canadians served overseas throughout the war, the conscription question resulted in French Canadians feeling more isolated than ever from the rest of Canada. They never fully supported the war effort, which resulted in the Federal government expressing deep concern over French Canada’s nationalist and anti-war stance. For the first time in Canada’s brief fifty-year history, there were substantial arguments being made in favour of revoking the Constitutional Act of 1867. The nation was divided between English-speaking imperialists who supported the overseas war effort and French-speaking nationalists who believed that conscription was a second attempt to impose the Conquest, therefore it needed to be resisted at all costs. The Federal Conservatives had stated on numerous occasions that conscription would not be imposed. However, upon his return from London in May 1917, Borden met with his cabinet and announced that he would be imposing conscription. While in London, Borden had received a lot of pressure to send more troops to fully support the allied forces. He was convinced that Canada’s war effort was weak and only conscription could make it respectable. All of his English-speaking ministers supported the idea. However his two French-Canadian ministers were hesitant. They fully understood the negative reactions that French-Canadians would have. The French-Canadian nationalists who opposed conscription viewed it as neither necessary nor successful. They argued that it caused an avoidable rift between English and French-Canada. The debate surrounding conscription would be one that would have a significant impact on both Federal and provincial politics for many years following World War I.
Quebec Easter riots and the end of the war
On January 1, 1918, the Unionist government began to enforce the Military Service Act. The act caused 404,385 men to be liable for military service, from which 385,510 sought exemption, The Military Service Act was vague and offered many exemptions, and almost all of these men were able to avoid service, even if they had supported conscription. The most violent opposition occurred in Quebec, where anti-war attitudes drawn from French-Canadian nationalism sparked a weekend of rioting between March 28 and April 1, 1918. The disturbances began on the Thursday when Dominion Police detained a French-Canadian man who had failed to present his draft exemption papers. Despite the man’s release, an angry mob of nearly 200 soon descended upon the St. Roch District Police Station where the man had been held. By the following Good Friday evening, an estimated 15,000[dubious– discuss] rioters had ransacked the conscription registration office as well as two pro-conscription newspapers within Quebec City.
This escalation of violence along with rumours of an alleged province-wide uprising prompted Quebec City Mayor Henri Edgar Lavigueur to contact Ottawa and request reinforcements. Alarmed by the two days of rioting, the Borden Government invoked the War Measures Act of 1914, which gave the federal government the power to directly oversee the maintenance of law and order in Quebec City. By the following morning, 780 federal soldiers had been deployed in the city, with an additional 1,000 en route from Ontario and 3,000 from western provinces. Despite their imminent arrival, protracted violence continued into the night of March 30, leading into a precarious Sunday. The final and bloodiest conflict happened Easter Monday, when crowds once again organized against the military presence in the city, which by then had grown to 1,200 soldiers – all of whom came from Ontario. Once armed rioters began to fire on troops from concealed positions, the soldiers were ordered to fire on the crowds, immediately causing them to disperse. Though the actual number of civilian casualties is debated, official reports from that day name five men killed by gunfire. Dozens more were injured. Among the soldiers are 32 recorded injuries that day, with no deaths. Monday, April 1, marked the end of the Easter Riots, which totaled over 150 casualties and $300,000 in damage.
The Easter Riots represent one of the most violent disturbances in Canadian history. This stemmed from a clash between English Canada's linkage to the British Empire and opposing currents in French-Canadian nationalism, which became exacerbated during wartime and ultimately erupted over conscription. Curiously, the event itself is rarely studied as anything other than a footnote to the larger political debate around conscription at the time. However, the severity and swiftness of Ottawa’s response serves to demonstrate their determination to impose conscription and prevent a national crisis. Moreover, the military crackdown which lasted in Quebec until the end of the war resulted in an increase in state power in the wake of growing French-Canadian nationalism.
By the spring of 1918, the government had amended the act so that there were no exemptions, which left many English Canadians opposed as well. Even without exemptions, only about 125,000 men were ever conscripted, and only 25,000 of these were sent to the front. Fortunately for Borden, the war ended within a few months, but the issue left Canadians divided and distrustful of their government. In 1920, Borden retired, and his successor, Arthur Meighen, was defeated in the 1921 election. Conservatives were virtually shut out of Quebec for the next 50 years.
- ^ abcdefghiThe Peoples of Canada, “A Post-Confederation History”, J.M. Bumstead
- ^Bishop, Elaine. "Conscientious Objector".
- ^"Patriotism and Partizanship". The Toronto Star. September 14, 1917.
- ^"Borden Tells of Need for Reinforcements". The Toronto Star. June 12, 1917.
- ^"Opinions/ Editorials". The Globe and Mail. June 26, 1917.
- ^Granatstein, J.L (2005). Canada and the First World War:Essays in Honour of Robert Craig Brown. Toronto: UTP Press.
- ^Martin F. Auger, “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots,”Canadian Historical Review 89/4 (December 2008): 504
- ^Martin F. Auger, “On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots,”Canadian Historical Review 89/4 (December, 2008): 540
- ^J.L. Granastein and J.M. Hitsman, Broken Promises: A History of Conscription in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press), 60–61
- ^J.L. Granastein and J.M. Hitsman, Broken Promises: A History of Conscription in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press), 60
- ^J.L. Granastein and J.M. Hitsman, Broken Promises A History of Conscription in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press), 63–64
- ^A.M. Williams, Conscription 1917 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), 1
- ^ abcdeAuger, Martin F. "On the Brink of Civil War: The Canadian Government and the Suppression of the 1918 Quebec Easter Riots" Canadian Historical Review 89/4 (2008), pp. 9, 15–17, 83