An A-Z of the World – E. H. Gombrich on: the First World War

As an aid to students, teachers and parents dealing with the challenges of home learning, we have constructed an A–Z of the World taken from E. H. Gombrich’s, A Little History of the World. Day by day, we will be sharing a bite size introduction to a historical figure, event or period – using Gombrich’s magical words – along with links to free resources, so that readers of all ages can discover more. Today, Gombrich covers the First World War.


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The First World War

E. H. GombrichIn the spring of 1914, the heir to the Austrian throne was visiting Bosnia and was murdered by a Serb in the capital, Sarajevo. Austria’s generals and politicians thought at the time that war with Serbia was inevitable. The dreadful murder had to be avenged, and Serbia humbled. Frightened by Austria’s advance, Russia was drawn in, whereupon Germany, as Austria’s ally, also became involved. And, once Germany was in the war, all the ancient enmities were unleashed. The Germans wanted to begin by destroying France, their most dangerous enemy, so they marched straight across neutral Belgium to attack Paris. Britain, fearing that a German victory would make Germany all-powerful, now joined in as well. Soon the whole world was at war with Germany and Austria.

‘The world had never seen a war like it. Millions and millions of people marched against each other.’

The world had never seen a war like it. Millions and millions of people marched against each other. The German armies were stopped when they reached the River Marne, not far from Paris. From this moment on, real battles, in the old sense, would only very rarely be fought. Instead, giant armies dug themselves in, and made their camps in endlessly long trenches facing one another. Then, for days on end, they fired thousands of guns at each other, bursting out in assaults through barricades of barbed wire and blown-up trenches, across a scorched and devastated wasteland strewn with corpses.

People fought against each other in the skies in aeroplanes; they dropped bombs on peaceful towns, sank innocent ships, and fought on the sea and under the sea, just as Leonardo da Vinci had foreseen. People invented horrible weapons that murdered and mutilated thousands each day, the most terrible of which were gases that poisoned the air. Anyone who breathed them died in terrible agony. People built armoured cars and tanks which moved slowly and inexorably over ditches and walls, demolishing and crushing everything in their path.

Eleven million people died in that war and entire regions were devastated in a way that had never been seen before. The suffering was beyond imagination.

Discover more A-Z blogposts here.

Free Resources to Learn More about the First World War

At the time of publication, these resources were free to use (some for a limited time only, during the COVID-19 pandemic).

BBC Bitesize (KS2)

World War One

BBC Bitesize (KS3)

The First World War

BBC Teach (KS3)

World War One Video Resources

BBC History

World War One

World War One at Home

Khan Academy

Various resources

Education Quizzes

Various World War One quizzes

FutureLearn

WW1 Heroism: Through Art and Film

The Yale Blog

First World War blogposts

This page provides access to a list of free online resources. It is not intended to endorse any particular resource.


A Little History of the World

All the descriptions in this A-Z are taken from E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World.

Philip Pullman described the book as, “A brilliant piece of narrative, splendidly organised, told with an energy and confidence that are enormously attractive, and suffused with all the humanity and generosity of spirit that Gombrich’s thousands of admirers came to cherish during his long and richly productive life. It’s a wonderful surprise: irresistible, in fact.”

Discover More

The Little Histories are vivid storybook introductions for the young and old alike. Inspiring and entertaining, each short book lays out our greatest subjects in deceptively simple, engaging tones. With charming and personal insights each expert gently takes the reader from ancient times to the present through bite size chapters, ideal as bedtime reading or on the journey to work. Other Little Histories available include, Philosophy, Economics, Science, Literature, Language, Religion and Poetry. More details about the whole series can be found on the Little Histories website.

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