Posted Online: Aug. 09, 2014, 8:48 pm

Cellphones, wristwatches among legacy of World War I

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By Tom Emery,

It was called the "Great War" and the "war to end all wars." Unfortunately for mankind, there
were even greater, and more deadly, wars to come.

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, which ostensibly began when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, and other European powers soon followed. Though overshadowed by World War II today, the effects of the first world conflict defined the remainder of the 20th century.

Ceremonies were held across Europe this week to mark the anniversary of the German invasion of Belgium on Aug. 4, which opened the warfare. The Belgian city of Liege was attacked the following day.

Leaders from those two nations, as well as France and Britain, gathered in Liege for a commemoration at an Allied memorial on Monday, Aug. 4. In Britain, lights were turned out to remember the centennial.

Archduke Ferdinand was shot by a 19-year-old Serbian liberator named Gavrilo Princip, which sparked a firestorm of diplomatic tensions between most European powers. Though Mr. Princip's shot was the catalyst, the causes of the war were decades in coming.

"It's fair to say there was a growing amount of tension between European nations before the assassination," said Mike Vietti, marketing and communications manager of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. "Conflicts such as the Balkan wars increased tensions, and it kept building."

While Europe was embroiled in a devastating global conflict, the United States remained neutral, the reflection of President Woodrow Wilson's belief that America had no place in a foreign war. The slogan "he kept us out of war" helped President Wilson gain re-election by a slim margin in 1916.

However, diplomatic tensions heightened with the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat in May 1915, costing 128 American lives. Subsequent unrestricted German submarine warfare on Allied vessels and U.S. cargo ships is cited by many as an impetus for American entry into the war.

American support for war was further galvanized by an inflammatory telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman to Mexico. Intercepted by British forces in January 1917, the telegram encouraged Mexico to declare war on the U.S. and persuade Japan to join the fight as well. In return, the Germans promised subsidies and assistance in reclaiming territories lost in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. The U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

The massive scale of World War I brought sweeping developments in military technology. The extensive use of submarines, particularly by the Germans, revolutionized naval warfare. On land, trench warfare was widespread, and it led to the development of a new war tool -- the tank.

"Tanks were created to combat trench warfare," said Mr. Vietti. "The tank came as a result of World War I, without question. Also, radio communication, which was not a factor beforehand, came to the forefront. In many ways, the cellphones of today may be traced to the development of radio technology in World War I."

Another new method of warfare was poison gas, which inflicted hideous suffering on victims. The use of airplanes, invented scarcely a decade before, also evolved quickly. "At the start of the war, airplanes were used mainly for scouting," Mr. Vietti said. "By the end, their role in combat took new shape, and dogfights were common."

Aces such as Manfred von Richthofen, who was Germany's infamous "Red Baron," as well as American Eddie Rickenbacher and Illinois fliers Howard Knotts and Reed Landis, became celebrated figures.

Casualties on both sides were staggering. Estimates of military dead range from 8.5 million to 10 million, including 2 million Germans, 1.8 million Russians, 1.4 million French and 900,000 British. More than 20 million troops were wounded.

Some 65 million troops, including 4.35 million Americans, were mobilized. Some 50,000 U.S. troops were killed, with 230,000 wounded.

Civilian deaths were equally appalling. The tallies included 2 million each in Russia and Turkey. Germany suffered 700,000 civilian losses, while Serbia lost 600,000 and Romania 500,000.

An armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, now celebrated in America as Veterans Day. However, scholars have pointed to many flaws in the various peace agreements, and many believe the resulting political and economic upheaval paved the way for a second world war two decades later.

"World War I was the signature event of the 20th century," said Mr. Vietti. "Many of the events that followed, including World War II, may be traced to the effects of the first world war. The women's suffrage movement took shape then, as women took the place of men in the workforce during the war effort and were empowered because of it.

"Things we take for granted in our daily lives -- like car radios, cellphones -- also had their roots in World War I," added Mr. Vietti. "Even something as simple as wristwatches, which were worn only by a few women before the war, came into popularity because they were used in service. The war affected humanity in countless ways, which we still experience today."

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher who lives in Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or