An idiot’s guide to World War I

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Battlefield WWI 1

We all know WWII backwards and forwards, right? Thanks to all the movies and games where it’s easy to keep track of the bad guys because they’re the Nazis, WWII is fairly familiar territory. But with Battlefield 1 and the new Wonder Woman movie both taking place during that other World War, some of you might feel a bit under-educated about it. Fear not! From a former high school history teacher, here’re the crib notes you’ll need to make sense of World War I.

How it all started

Wonder Woman WWI 1

There were numerous causes for WWI – German unification and eventual annexing of Alsace-Lorraine (an important coal and steel region), shifting alliances, arms race, polarization and even the “myth of the short war” have all been attributed as causes of the war. However, this isn’t a full history lesson but rather an abridged version to understand what’s going on during the entertainment of your choice. As such, the crux of the matter was that an Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Yugoslav nationalist. Due to a variety of secret alliances, major world powers were pulled into this conflict, eventually leading to the Great War.

Who was on which side?

Wonder Woman WW1

The Triple Entente (presumably the good guys in upcoming movie and game) consisted of The British Empire, France and the Russian Empire. They were later joined by Italy, Japan and the United States. Italy is an interesting case because it was originally part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but didn’t take their side in the war because Austria-Hungary had taken the offensive, against the terms of the alliance. In Africa, the Portuguese colonies also fought alongside the Entente powers.

The Central Powers consisted of Germany and Austria Hungary, later joined by the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. In Africa, the Ethiopian Empire, South African Republic (not to be confused with the Union of South Africa that fell under the British Empire) and Dervish State fought alongside the Central Powers.

Major milestones

Battlefield 1 WWI

After Germany steamrolled across Belgium and Luxembourg, France and Britain had to stop them. This was done with the battle of Marne. While the allies managed to repel the German army, it led to the years of stalemate and trench warfare. It’s important to realize that in this period, the combination of barbed wire and machine guns made it pretty much certain death for soldiers to move across the battlefield. Pushing the lines was next to impossible until technology developed further with the inventions of tanks and poison gas.

In the Pacific, due to the naval prowess of the British Empire, including Australia and New Zealand, Germany surrendered almost all their possessions without any bloodshed. As such, it’s doubtful that we’ll see much of these scenarios in the Wonder Woman movie or as maps in Battlefield 1. The African theater was much more nuanced and complicated, making it a possible backdrop for fighting in Battlefield 1. Across northern Africa, the fighting was mainly between German and French colonies, augmented by the British navy along the coast. Down the west coast and to the south, the German colonies mainly fought against British possessions, particularly in South Africa, although Portugal also became involved in what is now Angola.

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After years of neutrality during the war, America joined in 1917. The major catalyst was when German U-Boats sank five American merchant ships, prompting the US to declare war. By 1918, American troops were arriving at a rate of 10 000 per day. They were fresh, well nourished and could replace their losses faster than the Germans. This turned the tide of battle; compared to the earlier battles at Ypres and Verdun, by the time the Americans joined for the Battle of Amiens the Germans were on the back foot and simply hoping to survive long enough to negotiate peace.

Predictions for Wonder Woman and Battlefield 1

Wonder Woman WW1 CC

Considering that the majority of the war was spent with protracted trench warfare and lines that didn’t really move for months and years at a time, I doubt that either title will focus on the early years of the war. Most likely, they will pick things up from when America is pulled in – it will make things more familiar for most players and viewers, plus the pace is much faster. There might be some battles used in earlier sections of the game, but it will probably just be to highlight the technological changes as they come about, for example the elimination of horses and cavalry charges with the development of machine guns, followed by the creation of poison gas and tanks to combat the machine guns.

While I believe the majority of Wonder Woman and the Battlefield 1 campaign will, therefore, only really focus on 1917-1919, I do think that we can expect to see some interesting maps and battles using the African front in Battlefield 1. This seems particularly likely as the Harlem Hellfighters originally landed in France in 1917, doing primarily manual labor before finally seeing combat in 1918 at Marne, Champagne and Alsace. Also of interest, the 369th Infantry Regiment (the actual name of the Harlem Hellfighters) experienced a lot more racism at home and at the hands of the Americans than once they fought alongside the French.

Even if both the game and the movie focus only on the later years of WWI, it will just be nice to see a World War portrayed in major media that isn’t just about killing Nazis. World War I is almost unknown to many, and has a ton of material to work with depending on the types of games or movies they’re looking to make. Just look at how great Valiant Hearts was; World War I was a lot of potential for films and games, and I’m glad creators are finally using it – and hopefully showing how it really was just a time of abject misery.

Last Updated: July 27, 2016

Zoe Hawkins

Wielding my lasso of truth, I am the combination of nerd passion and grammar nazi. I delve into all things awesome and geek-tastic. You can read more of my words over at www.borngeek.co.za, or just follow me on all the social networks to get the true range of my sarcasm and wit.

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