A Concise Summary of World War I: The First Two Years (1914-1916)

Nick R. 

Project Description 

This is an ongoing project to complement my reading of John Keegan’s The First World War (2000), as well as Michael Howard’s The First World War: A Very Short Introduction (2003). I have also made use of other literature and resources throughout the project (see Useful Resources below).

Every year 1914-1918 has a paragraph summary detailing the events of each month. This article is for the first half of the conflict, 1914-1916.  Each year of the war also has a table, divided into sections for the Western Front, the Eastern Front, the Southern Front/Balkan Campaign and the multiple Turkish Fronts fought against the Ottoman Empire.

Particular attention is spent on the largest battles of the war: Verdun and the Somme (1916), and Passchendaele (1917). The first two of these will be covered here.

1914– The War Begins

The Great War began in July 1914, after decades of military buildup and tension between the great powers of Europe. Conflict was set off by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and nephew of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. In retaliation, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28th. The next day, Austrian forces began shelling Belgrade, the Serbian capital. Alliances between the great powers and the invasion of Belgium brought Germany and Austria-Hungary into conflict with Russia, France, and the United Kingdom by early August.


At the start of August, Germany invaded Belgium in order to maneuver around the strong French positions along the Franco-German border. This began the Battle of the Frontiers. Stiff Belgian resistance prevented German forces from invading past the border until late August. Belgian fortresses, most importantly Liege and Namur, held the Germans back until the last fort surrendered on the 17th. French attempts to invade German Lorraine in mid-August ended in utter disaster. Pushing into France, the Germans were able to overwhelm seven French armies as well as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

Combat in 1914 often featured field armies maneuvering in open spaces to gain advantage. By the end of the year, this would no longer be a feature of the war on the Western Front.

Also in August, the Austro-Hungarians invaded Serbia. At the Battle of Cer, Serbian forces defeated the far-larger Austrian army. As a result, Austria was forced to commit many more reserves to Serbia than Conrad von Hötzendorf, the overall Austrian commander, had anticipated.

In the east, Russian forces invaded German Prussia. Changes in leadership in the east saw Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg take command over German forces. Their leadership saw the annihilation of the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg by August 30th. In the subsequent First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, Russian forces were expelled from German territory.

Russian forces fared far better at the Battles of Galicia (Lemberg), where they caused 300,000 Austro-Hungarian casualties and took over 100,000 prisoners by September 11th. Many remaining Austrian forces were then bottled-up at the fortress  city of Przemyśl at the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. Attempts to relieve this fortress from Russian siege would see almost a million deaths in the Austrian army before Spring.


The start of September saw French forces and the BEF in full retreat towards Paris as the Germans pushed onward. British success at Mons had done little to stop the ongoing German offensive. As the German armies reached the outskirts of Paris, the German 1st and 2nd Armies became detached. French Commander-in Chief Joseph Joffre noticed this gap and allied forces were able to drive a wedge between German forces. This Miracle of the Marne saw the allies pushing German forces back along the Aisne river. Mid-September saw the creation of the trenches that would define combat at the western front for years to come.


Both sides attempted to outflank enemy trench-works in the Race to the Sea, which culminated in the First Battle of Ypres in late October through November. This battle saw the end of the old British professional army, most of whose soldiers had become casualties since the start of the war. Huge numbers of German casualties occurred in inexperienced reserve units brought up to the front.

The Ottoman Empire entered the war in late October by shelling Russian Odessa. In November, Russian troops crossed over the Caucasus Mountains into Ottoman territory during the Bergmann Offensive, opening up the Caucasus Front against the Turks. Although the Turks had initial success, they were forced to retreat after the terrible Battle of Sarikamish, suffering the terrible effects of mountain winter.

Serbia again triumphed over Austria in the Battle of Kolubara, ending in December. However, casualties were massive on both sides and the Serbs were running low on munitions and manpower.

Table of Events- 1914

1914 Western Front Eastern Front Balkans Campaign/ Turkish Fronts
June 28: Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
July July Crisis 7/25: Serbia mobilizes

7/28: Austria declares war

7/29: Austria shells Belgrade


420 mm Krupp Gun, used to destroy Belgian fortifications

8/1: Germany mobilizes, declares war on Russia.

8/3: Germany and France declare war on each other

8/3: Invasion of Belgium

8/4: The United Kingdom declares war on Germany

8/7: The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrives in France

8/14-24: Battle of the Frontiers

8/17: Liege fortification cleared

8/21: Charleroi

8/23: Mons

8/24: The Great Retreat begins

8/30: Kluck stops German drive to Paris

8/15: Russia invades Prussia

8/23-9/11: Battles of Galicia

8/27-30: Battle of Tannenberg

The Russian Second Army was encircled and destroyed at Tannenberg
8/1: Germany and the Ottoman Empire sign a secret alliance treaty

8/6: Austria-Hungary declares war on Russia

8/12: Austrian invasion of Serbia (starts Balkan Campaign, B.C.)

8/15: Battle of Cer  (B.C.)


Allied forces exploited the 30 mile gap between the German 1st and 2nd armies at the Battle of the Marne
9/4: Joffre halts retreat of French forces

9/5-12: Battle of the Marne

9/14: Falkenhayn new German Chief of Staff

9/15- Push to the Aisne and the creation of trenches

9/7-9/14: First Battle of the Masurian Lakes

9/11: Battle of Galicia ends

9/16: Siege of Przemyśl Begins

9/6-10/4: Battle of Drina
October 10/10: Siege of Antwerp ends

10/19-11/22:  First Battle Ypres

Vistula River/Lodz Stalemate 10/4: End of Battle of Drina

10/29: Turkey shells Odessa, sparking war with Russia

November 11/11:  Kindermord at Ypres

11/22: End of Ypres

The Caucasus Campaign led to massive Turkish casualties during the winter of 1914. 86% of Ottoman troops were killed during the Battle of Sarikamish
11/2: The Russian Bergmann Offensive starts the Caucasus Campaign (C.C.)

Fao Landing/Battle of Basra starts the Mesopotamian Campaign (M.C.)

11/16-12/16: Battle of Kolubara (B.C.)

December Christmas Truce  12/7: Niš Declaration

12/16: End Battle of Kolubara

12/5-1/18: Battle of Ardahan (C.C.)

12/22-1/17: Battle of Sarikamish.

Enver Pasha assumes direct control over the 3rd Army.

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