The first World War: the aftermath

The years following the end of the war were marked by more wars, political upheaval and deep social change


At 11am on November 11th, 1918, the guns fell silent along the Western Front. The noise, continuous since late 1914, was said to have been the loudest ever made by humans. Now, weary soldiers simply shook hands. It was enough to have survived when more than 10 million of their fellows had died. Rejoicing was left to the towns and cities of France, the British Empire and the USA, whose armies had pushed the Germans out of France over the previous three months.

That same morning, Canadian soldiers reached Mons in Belgium, where the British had first seen action in August 1914. But three-quarters of a million of them had died since then, including 35,000 Irishmen. While many Germans surrendered, enough were still conducting a fighting retreat to make an Armistice (or cease-fire) welcome. Its terms allowed the allies to occupy the Rhineland, but they never reached Berlin. Had they really won?

The fighting had defied expectations as the war became a siege on all the fronts around Europe. Machine-guns and high-explosive artillery made infantry offensives costly until the end. The struggle turned into one of attrition, wearing the enemy down. In the end, the Allies gained the advantage. The Germans could not win, but nor were they beaten openly in the field, allowing some to assert the home front betrayed them. Not even the second World War would surpass the battlefield violence of the Great War.

What had it all been about ?

The defeated Germans hoped to make peace on the basis of the Fourteen Points which President Woodrow Wilson had declared in January 1918. These proposed a new European order based on national sovereignty and a League of Nations to prevent wars. While the British and French leaders (Lloyd George and Clémenceau) wished to protect their own national interests, they also subscribed to the idea of the war as one for democracy and national self-determination in Europe and against the authoritarian military rule exercised by the kaiser's Germany and its allies over much of the continent.


The war had not started out like that. Triggered by a conflict between Serb nationalism and the multi-national Austro-Hungarian empire, it had pitted the major European states against each other over the balance of power. But it had turned into a struggle between entire societies to sustain the war of attrition, and the strain told most on those least able to bear it – the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

By December 1917, the war had brought revolution to Russia and the Bolsheviks had taken the country out of the war. In 1918, revolution broke out in Ukraine as imperial Germany gained control of the country from Russia under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March. Nationalists demanded independence across eastern Europe and in Ireland. As Germany launched its final bid for victory before the American build-up overwhelmed it, conservative nationalists backed the military government in pursuit of a permanent hegemony over Europe, though German liberals and socialists resisted this. The war radicalised European politics. Communism (as Bolshevism became known), different nationalisms, liberal democracy and socialism would contest the continent for years.


The Armistice on November 11th was preceded by those with Germany's allies (Bulgaria, Ottoman Turkey, Austria-Hungary). As the allied armies moved into the defeated lands, Europe entered a strange twilight in which war was over but peace had not yet come. This could only happen when the Allies gathered in Paris under the presiding figure of Woodrow Wilson for a conference that would seek to remake the European and world orders. The Allies had to keep millions of men under arms until the treaty with Germany was signed at Versailles on June 28th, 1919, the other treaties following down to mid-1920.

The mood during that winter was pregnant with hopes and fears for the future. These were reflected in the adulation of President Wilson. As he arrived in France on December 13th aboard the USS George Washington, he was greeted not just by the allied powers, but also by the acclamation of people across Europe (except Bolshevik Russia), from nationalists to labour activists. As already noted, even leaders in the defeated states hoped the Fourteen Points might produce an acceptable peace.

Inevitably, as the peace conference unfolded in Paris from January 1919, it was fraught with contradictions. Unlike in 1945, when the Allies imposed total surrender, this peace process assumed limited participation by the vanquished. They were excluded from negotiations but were allowed to respond to the final conditions. Many Germans, who as recently as spring 1918 had believed victory to be at hand, felt total defeat and retroactive “guilt’ for the war were unacceptable.

Also, while the ideal of national self-determination had been meant for Europe, many of the new nation-states created in the east experienced conflict over borders and ethnic minorities. Yet Irish statehood was excluded (despite a Sinn Féin delegation) out of deference to Britain. Wilson’s ideas had not been meant in the same way for the colonies, so the claims advanced by their nationalists were also rejected. Paris produced dreams and disillusion in equal measure.

The wars after the war

While millions of people felt relief that the slaughter of the Great War was over, the calm in the victorious countries contrasted with upheaval in the defeated. Already in 1918, the Bolshevik revolution had imploded in counter-revolution and civil war. As fear of Bolshevism swept Europe and America, the Allies intervened unsuccessfully in Russia in a bid to crush the menace. Moreover, the demands for national sovereignty in eastern Europe and the Middle East as the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires collapsed (posing the minorities question at the peace conference) also exploded into violence and border wars as the successor nation-states fought to establish their existence on the ground. Poland, Lithuania, Finland and Yugoslavia, among others, experienced violent birth pangs, as did independent Ireland.

Revolution and counter-revolution swept Germany, Austria and Hungary, with dissatisfied nationalists and military officers forming paramilitary units (or freikorps) to crush the radical workers' movements and fight the border wars. Something similar happened in Italy. Though a victor, it was felt by many (notably Mussolini and his new 'fascists') to have lost out in the peace. Meanwhile, in the Ottoman Empire, which the Allies had carved up into spheres of influence, the charismatic leader, Kemal Attaturk, fought a war to establish an independent Turkey. In parts of Europe and the Middle East (Ireland included), the violence of these extended conflicts did not really end until 1923.

Social change

The war of attrition had imposed deep social changes. Mobilising the economy meant creating war industries. Women who struggled to keep families going also took over the work of absent men in factories and on the land. Skilled workers who had been called up as soldiers in 1914 returned to produce munitions. They were inevitably resented as “shirkers” by those still at the front. In France, men came from the colonies as soldiers and workers while African-Americans arrived with the US army. For the first time ever, people “of colour” arrived in Europe en masse. If the soldiers were appreciated, the workers (some of whom had relations with French women, inverting the colonial order) occasioned friction and even riots. All the wartime societies hosted refugees displaced by the fighting, often provoking what we would now call “compassion fatigue”.

The war tested societies to the limit. Worsening conditions and class tensions were measured against sacrifice at the front. By 1918, strikes were widespread. This was especially true in Germany and Austria-Hungary, owing in part to the hardship of the allied naval blockade. Sometimes protest took on a pacifist tone. Yet as the fate of nations and empires hung in the balance, the support of the home fronts remained vital.

Not for the first time, war acted as a catalyst of social change. As peace came, there was widespread demand for recognition of both the sacrifices and the grievances of wartime, whether through revolution (as in Germany) or by reform (in Britain and France). Women gained the vote in many countries, starting with Russia, where they voted for the constituent assembly in 1917 before the Bolsheviks abolished it. Female suffrage was usually linked to wider reform giving all men the vote in return for their military service. But it also reflected feminism and women’s role in the war. Workers (backed by growing trade unions) gained various reforms, including the eight-hour day.

Social reform marked the peace conference. Women’s societies and trade unions proved powerful lobbyists. The Treaty of Versailles contained the principal of equal pay and set up the International Labour Organisation to plan social reforms with the League of Nations. It is true that economic recession and a conservative political turn in many countries in the early 1920s dashed more radical plans. Yet the link between warfare and welfare, so crucial after the second World War, was visible at the end of the first.


One major question as the war ended was more intangible. How would the soldiers’ sacrifice be remembered? When the men returned home, they were often greeted (even in defeated Germany) by local ceremonies. France and Britain held major victory parades in Paris and London in July 1919 to celebrate the Treaty of Versailles. Other allied capitals followed suit, but there could be no equivalent in the defeated powers.

Yet even the victors struggled to find the right date for an annual commemoration. Should it be the date the war began or of its most important battle? They opted for when it ended, which meant (except for Italy) the armistice of November 11th. The meaning was the human cost of the war and its military dead, rather than any political message. Already, a temporary cenotaph (empty tomb) had been at the heart of each victory parade. In London, this became permanent, while both Britain and France in 1920 buried an “unknown” soldier to individualise the mass dead of the conflict, including the “missing”, whose bodies were never found. The minute’s silence at the very moment of the Armistice completed a ritual that was more about mass mourning than triumphalism.

All this proved more problematic in the vanquished states, and especially Germany. There, as in Austria and Hungary, the war and its dead were commemorated in myriad ways, but more often local than national. The politics of defeat remained deeply divisive. When the Nazis came to power, redeeming the soldiers’ sacrifice in the Great War meant overturning the legacy of Versailles. In June 1940, they held the victory parade on the Champs Elysées that the Allies had never managed in Berlin.

John Horne is a historian and emeritus fellow of TCD where he was Professor of Modern European History