Participants of World War I: The Entente, The Central Powers, The Allies, and The United States

World War I Participants

Almost a century ago, the world began fighting in a conflict that killed 10 million people and forever changed the map of Europe. Many countries joined the war because of their pre-war alliances, and others were drawn in by colonial ties.

The war was the first to use new military technology, and it grew into a global affair. Here’s how it all started:

The Entente

The Triple Entente—sometimes referred to as the Allied powers—was an important counterweight to Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy (the Central Powers) during World War I. It was composed primarily of the British and French governments-in-exile based in their far-flung colonies. Later, Japan and the United States would join.

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Britain and France had signed a series of agreements known as the Entente Cordiale that helped ease British concerns about German imperialism. Russia joined the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907 and helped deter a potential German encirclement.

But by the time war began, Kaiser Wilhelm II was pursuing a course of empire building called Weltpolitik that ran counter to Bismarck’s pragmatic policies of Realpolitik. The conflict soon expanded from Europe and spelled the end of four great imperial dynasties—the Habsburgs of Austria-Hungary, the Hohenzollerns of Germany, and the sultanate of the Ottoman Empire. It also helped unleash one of the most lethal pandemics in history.

The Central Powers

The Central Powers consisted of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. They fought against the Allies, which were the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France and Russia plus their colonies and Dominions.

Long-standing territorial grievances, competitive economic rivalries and secret obligations set the stage for World War I in Europe. Mobilization schedules and martial rhetoric soon set all of the Great Powers on the path to war.

At the outbreak of the conflict in August 1914, the Central Powers had a slight advantage in the number of troops. But Allied superiority in training, higher levels of leadership and armament quickly reduced that advantage.

The Central Powers were ultimately defeated at the war’s end. Their defeat was largely the result of a series of strategic mistakes and tactical errors. They were also saddled with a slew of heavy reparations and denied entry to the League of Nations, which created a deep sense of injustice that would lead directly to World War II.

The Allies

One of the biggest military and political alliances in history, the Allies consisted of Russia, France, and Britain (also known as the Triple Entente) against Germany and Austria-Hungary. The United States joined the Allies in 1917, largely due to escalating German aggression and the attack on the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, which killed dozens of American citizens.

President Woodrow Wilson had attempted to keep the US out of the war but was unable to maintain neutrality in the face of the growing threat from German naval power. Combined with the czar’s removal from power by revolution in Russia and the scuttling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this compelled the US to join the fight.

Throughout the course of the war, the roster of Allied partners fluctuated. Countries liberated from Axis occupation renewed their membership, and the Allies became a formalized group through the Declaration by United Nations in January 1942. The Big Three—the UK, the US, and France—played a key role in liaising amongst themselves and their smaller Allies.

The United States

When the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne was assassinated in 1914, it set off a chain of events that pulled most of Europe into full-scale war. More men died in World War I than in any previous war; tens of millions more were affected by its effects. It was the first time that airplanes, tanks, long-range artillery, poison gas, and a global influenza pandemic were used.

At the beginning of the conflict, President Woodrow Wilson tried to keep America out of the war. But he was forced to change course when German submarines began to sink neutral ships carrying Americans and because of the intercepted Zimmerman telegram, which revealed Germany’s plan to recruit Mexico to attack the United States.

Once the war started, America accelerated its mobilization. It grew from 200,000 soldiers to over 4 million, including women recruited to work as telephone operators, nurses and doctors; a group of American volunteers who formed the Lafayette Escadrille; and many more enlisting to fight in the muddy trenches.

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