10 Important World War I Battles You Were Never Taught in School

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Most American students learn that World War I featured Brits and Germans shooting at each other from trenches for four years until America showed up to save the day. Even in countries that were major combatants, like Britain and France, teaching is limited to the trenches of the Western front and a key national battle like the Somme or Verdun.

It’s not hard to see why. World War I is over a century old now, and it’s overshadowed by its larger budget, more morally black and white sequel. It’s easy to forget that it truly was a world war—battles were fought all around the globe, and the consequences of some of them are still felt today. These are just 10 of many influential battles you probably never learned about.

10. The Battle of Vittorio Veneto

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When you think of the Allies in World War I, Italy isn’t the first country that comes to mind. But the Italian Front, where the Italians fought the Austro-Hungarian Empire, featured all the squalor and misery of trench warfare with the added fun of high altitudes and bitter cold—avalanches were as much of a threat as bullets.

The brutality came to an end at Vittorio Veneto in 1918. After an Austro-Hungarian offensive in June ended in abject failure, the Italians began their decisive attack in October. The two sides were equal in strength and both suffered heavily casualties, but tactical superiority from the Italians, along with disorganization, low morale and revolt in the Austro-Hungarian ranks made the difference. The Italians advanced continuously over the course of 11 days, not stopping until Austria-Hungary surrendered.

The result was the complete collapse of the Empire. Austria and Hungary split in half while Yugoslavia declared independence, and the dissolution of Germany’s chief ally was a key factor in their own surrender just two weeks later. But while Empires were collapsing, other powers were emerging—Vittorio Veneto is seen as the final act of Italian unification, a struggle that began over a century ago in 1815.

9. The Siege of Tsingtao

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Japan is infamous for its role in World War II, but like Italy it fought with the Allies in the First World War. While Japan’s role in the conflict was a relatively minor one, it played an important part in naval affairs. One of their first acts was to lay siege to the port of Tsingtao in German held China.

The siege began in October 1914 with the Japanese launching the first ever naval-based air strikes, although the attack was unsuccessful and the Germans drew first blood by sinking a Japanese cruiser. Despite the outcome of the siege being a foregone conclusion the Germans put up a fierce defense, with Kaiser Wilhelm II commenting that “it would shame me more to surrender Tsingtao to the Japanese than Berlin to the Russians.”

Regardless of the Kaiser’s personal feelings, the Germans were eventually forced to capitulate, although their lengthy holdout against tough odds impressed both sides. As for Japan, their naval success shaped their history. In addition to gaining respect among the Western powers, the Imperial Navy gained massive political influence, and an atmosphere of colonialism and militarism began to take hold. Their acts as Allies, beginning at Tsingtao, laid the groundwork for the Axis Power they would later become.

8. The Battle of Chra

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The Battle of Chra, fought in August 1914 in Togoland, seems almost quaint when compared to the war’s other battles. 13 German soldiers gave up their lives in a defensive last stand that killed 44 French soldiers and 31 British troops, yet ultimately still compelled the Germans to surrender.

The entire Togoland Campaign lasted less than a month, but it was a prelude to the war that would envelop Africa for the next four years. Small German forces would evade and harass larger Allied armies in an attempt to draw out the conflict and force the Allies to send additional men and supplies to Africa instead of Europe. While some German forces were successful—General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was undefeated in battle for the entire war, was the only German to successfully invade British territory, and generally fought what some consider to be the greatest guerrilla campaign in history—they ultimately couldn’t change the result in Europe.

Chra is symbolic for another reason as well. The German defeat forced them to surrender Togoland to the Allies, the first of their colonies lost during the war. It would not be the last—by the war’s end, Germany lost its entire sprawling colonial empire.

7. The Battle of Jerusalem

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It’s telling that a search for “Battle of Jerusalem” will produce dozens of different results. The strategic and symbolic importance of Jerusalem seems obvious, but at the time Britain’s Sinai and Palestine Campaign against the Ottoman Empire was seen as a sideshow that sucked valuable resources away from the Western Front.

Nevertheless, the campaign was deadly serious to the hundreds of thousands of men who fought in it. A strategically complicated campaign that saw many nuanced battles, the Battle of Jerusalem was a particularly complex, back and forth affair. The name is a bit of a misnomer, as the conflict actually took place in the hills and villages outside the city. The Ottomans lost ground before launching several vicious but ultimately unsuccessful counterattacks. At a strategic disadvantage and not wanting to risk damage to the holy city, the Ottomans surrendered Jerusalem and retreated.

On December 11, 1917, British General Edmund Allenby entered the city on foot, becoming the first Christian to control Jerusalem in several centuries. It was a hugely symbolic moment in the previously backwater campaign—Prime Minister David Lloyd George described the victory as a “Christmas present for the British people,” while the Ottomans were demoralized to lose another holy city after failing to keep hold of Mecca and Baghdad. A massive victory at a time when the war was otherwise going poorly for the Allies, the loss of Jerusalem marked the beginning of the end for the Ottomans in the Middle East.

The effects of the battle are still felt today. Allied conquests in the Middle East led to the creation of modern Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and the political complexities of today’s Middle East can in many ways be traced back to this campaign.

6. The Battle of Dobro Pole

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Bulgaria was not a popular country in 1914. Widely despised for their aggression in the Second Balkan War just a year prior, the country initially remained neutral as it strived to recover from recent conflicts. However, its strategically important position soon turned it from a pariah into a promising ally courted by both sides, and it eventually joined with the Central Powers in September 1915 with the promise of territorial gains.

Bulgaria punched above its weight in battle, was instrumental in knocking out Serbia and Romania, and also became a crucial thoroughfare for German aid to the Ottoman Empire. However, after initial rapid gains they soon settled into the familiar pattern of trench warfare that saw little progress until economic and strategic problems led to Bulgaria’s sudden collapse in 1918.

This reversal of fortunes culminated in the Battle of Dobro Pole. French troops and surviving Serbian forces routed the Bulgarians, leading to revolts by the soldiers and the abandonment of the front lines. While the Bulgarians were able to rally long enough to win the next battle and stave off a complete occupation of their country, the damage was done and Bulgaria surrendered, eliminating one of Germany’s allies.

Bulgaria only lost one major battle in the entire war, and yet for the second time in six years a war they started to gain territory ended with them losing land and power—the one-sided Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine is known in Bulgaria as the Second National Catastrophe.

5. The Battle of El Herri

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El Herri was one of the worst French defeats in World War I, although it technically wasn’t even part of that conflict. It was the opening shot of the 1914-1921 Zaian War, where France and Moroccan loyalists fought to defend their colony in Morocco from a confederation of native Zaian rebels opposed to French rule. But, like everything else in the world, the Great War complicated matters.

Most of France’s forces in Morocco were pulled away to fight in Europe, and the commander of the garrison, Lieutenant-Colonel René Laverdure, was ordered to not take any offensive action. French command felt they could resolve the situation peacefully, and that may very well have been the case had Laverdure not disobeyed orders. Frustrated by a lack of action, he led an attack on a Zaian encampment.

The attack itself went well, but as they were returning Laverdure’s force was attacked and routed. Over 600 men, including Laverdure himself, were killed in one of the worst defeats in French colonial history. French command was shocked to learn that over half of their garrison had been wiped out by what they saw as inferior tribesmen, and it was a grim note for them to begin World War I on.

To further fuel the fire, the Central Powers funded the Zaian rebels in the hopes of forcing the French to re-deploy men and material to Africa. While the French would still eventually win the Zaian War, El Herri is considered a historic victory against oppression in Morocco, and the battle inspired those who continued to fight for Morocco’s eventual independence.

4. The Battle of Beringia

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Today we all know Darfur as a region of Sudan, but from 1603 to 1874 it was an independent state called the Sultanate of Darfur. What happened after 1874 is complicated, but the gist of it is that the Sultanate was allowed to maintain some independence in exchange for a yearly tribute to Britain. It was essentially a glorified British colony, but in 1915 British installed Sultan Ali Dinar was growing uncooperative. Fearing that he was negotiating with the Ottoman Empire, the British launched a pre-emptive invasion of Darfur in March of 1916.

While the conflict lasted until November, where it ended in Dinar’s death, the decisive battle was fought at Beringia in May. A pair of attempted Fur Army ambushes over two days both ended in defeat and heavy causalities, forcing them to retreat into the mountains where they never again formed an effective fighting force.

After the rebellion was quashed the British made the formerly independent state of Darfur part of Sudan, a nearly century old act whose repercussions can still be seen today in the on-going War in Darfur. Beringia serves as a stark reminder of the complicated morality of the Great War. The British came to the aid of their invaded allies at the same time they were brutally suppressing uprisings against their colonial rule, arguably making them both heroes and villains in the same conflict.

3. The Battle of Galicia

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One of the most influential battles of the war actually took place in its opening months. Galicia, which was essentially a series of large battles between Austria-Hungry and Russia, saw the Austro-Hungarians invade and initially make gains before rapidly being beaten back by the Russians. Over two million soldiers fought at Galicia, and there were over half a million causalities in the brutal conflict.

While the situation on the Eastern Front evolved significantly over the years, most notably thanks to the Russian Revolution, Galicia was nevertheless a crushing defeat for Austria-Hungry that led to the equally damaging Siege of Przemysl. Together with their initially disastrous Serbian Campaign, these defeats crippled the Austro-Hungarian army. The Empire would never fully recover from its high causalities, particularly among its officer corps, and morale plummeted. What they had hoped would be their best shot at a quick knockout blow instead guaranteed them years of slogging, ineffectual warfare.

This forced their German allies to take resources away from their massive fight on the Western Front and fight a two-front war they weren’t expecting, one of many complications that led to the eventual defeat of the Central Powers. Austro-Hungarian territorial losses in the face of Russian advances were also the first step towards the re-establishment of Poland as an independent state.

2. The Battle of Tampere

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The Russian Revolution threw the entire war into chaos. One little known effect is that their civil war caused another—with the Czar gone it was no longer clear who ruled Finland, and the country plunged into a conflict that mirrored the one being fought in Russia. While both the conservative Whites and the socialist Reds agreed on Finnish independence, they disagreed passionately on how the newly independent country would be run.

The three month war is infamous for its cruelty, with both sides making use of terror tactics. The penultimate battle was fought in the city of Tampere, one of the Reds’ two major strongholds. The urban fighting was slow-going and amateurish, but despite heavy causalities as they moved through the city the Whites were able to force a Red retreat.

From that point on the Reds were constantly on the defensive. Much like how the Allies intervened in Russia on behalf of the anti-communist White forces, so too did Germany take the side of the Whites in Finland. This intervention, which came just months before Germany lost their own war, gave the Whites a significant military advantage that they would never relinquish. Red supporters who couldn’t escape to Russia ended up in prison camps, where mortality rates were staggeringly high. Finland had gained its independence, but it came at the cost of nearly 37,000 deaths.

1. The Battle of Sardarabad

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It’s easy to dismiss World War I as a pointless conflict, but Armenians fighting for their very survival against the genocidal Ottoman Empire would probably disagree with that assessment. As many as 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated by the Ottomans, but total defeat was staved off at Sardarabad.

The battle came near the end of the Caucasus Campaign, a muddled and complex theater where a Russian advance on the disorganized Ottomans was stopped by the Russian Revolution. With the withdrawal of their strongest allies, the Armenians were suddenly in a disastrous position. The Ottomans made rapid advances, leaving the Armenians with literally no room to retreat. Finally, over the course of nine days near Sardarabad, a numerically inferior force made up of soldiers, guerrilla fighters and inexperienced civilians held off the Ottoman advance and forced their opponents back.

While the Armenians were still in a precarious position, victory at Sardarabad bought them survival until the end of the war and the Ottoman Empire’s subsequent collapse. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this conflict, with historian Christopher J. Walker noting that had the result gone the other way, “it is perfectly possible that the word Armenia would have henceforth denoted only an antique geographical term.”

Want to learn more about World War I?
We’ve got another list of battles from the Great War — these ones are the deadliest. Or skip ahead a few decades and read about the greatest military blunders of World War II.

You can read more from Mark at his website.


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2 Comments

  1. Pendres Chekednes on

    Related to the #1 entry above, if the Armenians lost, then the world would’ve been a lot different now, because of the Turkic belt joined from Turkey to Asia.
    Russia, USA, Iran, Israel and many other countries would’ve been under a lot of pressure from those Mongolian nations who would be controlling the oil, traffic, religion and many other aspects of everyday life, making life miserable for all.

    Thank God Armenia exists now and stops those criminal countries from their evil agendas. Just hope that the world will realize the importance of Armenia in the region and will help them survive those invading and malicious countries, mainly Turkey and Azerbaijan.

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