The First World War – or The Great War as
it was called at the time – shook society and changed the face of the globe. For four terrible years – 1914 to 1918 – the
world’s Empires fought each other fiercely – pulling in their colonies to assist. New Zealand fought on the side of the Entente
powers, also called ‘the Allies’. The main Allied powers till 1917 were France,
Russia and – the empire to which New Zealand belonged – Britain. On the opposing side were the Central Powers
– Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Each side sought military superiority, which
encouraged rapid development of new technology. This ranged from new weapons such as tanks
and poison gas, through better aircraft and communications, to medical equipment such
as mobile x-ray machines and new bandaging materials. For four years the primary campaign of the
war was waged along Europe’s Western Front. It became a war of attrition – with each
side trying to wear the other down. In 1915 Britain attempted to open a second
front at Gallipoli – and this was where the New Zealanders joined the Australians
to become the Anzacs. The attempt failed. Meanwhile, the battle along the Western and
Eastern Fronts continued. The following year, New Zealand troops headed
to the Somme to fight in one of the bloodiest clashes in history. Over a million men from
around the world became casualties during the 5-month-long Battle of the Somme. 2,000 New Zealand men lost their lives there.
Losses were also high at Passchendaele in Belgium where 845 men were killed in a few
hours on 12 October 1917 – the highest one-day death toll suffered by New Zealand forces
overseas. By 1917 it looked like the Central Powers
were gaining the upper hand. Then, in April of that year, the United States entered the
war – boosting the morale and strength of the Allies and helping to turn the tables.
An armistice on the Western Front finally came into effect at 11 a.m. on the 11th of
November 1918. The War was over.
However, the political, social, technological, and economic effects were only beginning to
be felt. Military defeat, as well as internal turmoil,
saw the collapse of four empires: Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman
Empire. The map of the world was redrawn as these empires were carved up into smaller
nations and colonies. Germany in particular suffered devastating
consequences to its economy – and the economic and social legacy left by the war contributed
to the rise of the Nazi Party in the early 1930s and ultimately to the Second World War. The United States meanwhile emerged from the
First World War as a new global power. Once the war was over, its technological developments
were put to use commercially. This boosted some countries’ economies and led to greater
industrialisation. Much changed on the social front as well. With the men away at war, women
in many countries had taken on new roles in paid employment and community organisations.
For New Zealand, the four years of the First World War had exacted an immense cost. Almost
10% of the country’s 1.1 million people had gone overseas to take part – and nearly
one in five had not come back – almost 2% of the New Zealand population. Nearly 3,000 New Zealand men died at Gallipoli
and over four times as many on the Western Front. On the 28th of June 1919, New Zealand and
other dominions of the British Empire signed the peace agreement, the Treaty of Versailles.
They signed in their own right, albeit as part of the British Empire Delegation. They
also joined the newly established League of Nations as full members, marking an important
step in the dominions’ paths to independence.