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?
Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.
World War I has often been described as an “unnecessary war.” Why? Do you agree?
World War I has been called unnecessary because the original dispute that triggered the conflict was limited, yet it triggered a massive, global war. In short, the conflict stemmed merely from Austria-Hungary and Serbia’s disagreement over how to handle the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand: the Austro-Hungarian government believed that the Serbian government was connected with the assassination and therefore demanded to be involved in the investigation and judicial process within Serbia. No other countries had a direct interest in the matter. Russia and Germany were the next to get involved, not because of animosity toward each other but because of their intentions to protect Serbia and Austria-Hungary, respectively. France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire had even less interest in the matter. Thus, one could argue that much of the war could have been avoided if Russia and Germany had simply kept out of the matter.
On the other hand, real tensions existed among many of the principal nations prior to the war, and these conflicting ambitions contributed to the war’s escalation. In particular, the naval arms race between Germany and Britain was intensifying, and growing German colonial ambitions raised the tension level further. Additionally, the spread of nationalism in southern Europe was destabilizing Austria-Hungary, making the country dangerously vulnerable to minority uprisings. Thus, many observers and strategists felt that an armed conflict between the European powers was inevitable; the disagreement over the archduke’s assassination simply provided a spark and an outlet.
2. What, if any, are the connections between the causes of the war in 1914 and the reasons that the war was still going on in 1918?
In many ways, World War I in mid-1914 and World War I in mid-1918 are unrelated. What started as a local conflict over a political assassination had become an unbelievable bloodbath: the Indian troops fighting in Mesopotamia, the Australians fighting in Gallipoli, and the Americans fighting in France had little invested in the conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. The same was largely true at the government level in many of the warring nations. For the Allied Powers, the fight was mostly about Germany, not Austria-Hungary. By 1918, those who were still fighting were doing so because they could not find a way to stop without facing unacceptable losses.
On the other hand, some of the roots of the original conflict—factors that predated Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination—were still present and still unresolved. Nationalism, which was spreading rapidly through southern and eastern Europe, became the major cause of mutinies in the Austro-Hungarian army. Ultimately, these mutinies caused Austria-Hungary’s collapse, isolating Germany and helping bring about the war’s end. Thus, one could argue that the same problem that had started the war was at least partly responsible for ending it.
Consider the role of diplomacy in World War I. How was it a positive influence? How was it a negative one?
Although diplomacy traditionally is used to prevent armed conflicts from happening, in the case of World War I, it in many ways played the opposite role, whether intended or not. Few of the combatant nations in World War I were directly interested in the disputes between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and in many cases they became involved only because of treaties obligating them to defend other countries. Although some of these treaties were publicly known, many had been made in secret, preventing potential enemies from ascertaining the consequences of their actions.
This opaqueness of diplomacy was arguably one of the main factors that led Germany to make such aggressive moves early in the war, as many German leaders believed that Britain would never enter the war against them. Russia likewise pursued a number of secret treaties and agreements both before and during the war. Italy even went so far as to shop around secretly when trying to decide which side offered the greatest potential benefits. Ultimately, these secret diplomatic maneuverings escalated the war to catastrophic levels. As a result, one of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points policy was that henceforth, all treaties and trade agreements between nations be held with full public disclosure.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. What is trench warfare, and why was so much of World War I dominated by this method of fighting? Consider such elements as technology, strategy, attitudes of leaders, and any other factors you can think of. How did trench warfare affect the duration of the war?
2. After the war, Germany was punished much more severely than were the remnants of Austria-Hungary. Do you think this was reasonable? In your answer, consider the roles each country shared in starting and escalating the war. Also consider the roles of Serbia and Russia.
3. How did the use of new technologies during World War I influence the war? Which sides benefited the most from which technologies? Did any of them play a role in either lengthening or in shortening the war? Which technologies were the most important?
4. Discuss the U.S. policy on American troops serving in Europe during World War I. Why do you think American commanders were hesitant to allow U.S. soldiers to serve in British and French regiments? What effect did this policy have on America’s relations with the other Allied countries?
5. What was the Schlieffen Plan and why was it unsuccessful during World War I?