Countries That Played Lesser Roles in WW I

Countries That Played Lesser Roles in WW I
John Simkin
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This year marks the centenary of the end of World War I, a war that was heralded by American President Woodrow Wilson as “the war to end all wars.” Of course that didn’t happen. Instead, three old dynasties collapsed (Hapsburg, Osman, and Romanov) and in their place sprung up a number of new states that were to be modeled after northwestern Europe’s nation-state.

These new nation-states sowed the seeds of the ethnic strife that has plagued Europe and the Middle East since 1918. You’d think the results of this war would give Wilson a bad name, but Princeton has an entire school dedicated to foreign affairs named after Wilson.

There are six countries that get most of the attention associated with World War I - the Ottoman Empire, the U.K. and its empire, Russia, Germany, France, and the United States - but several more deserve some recognition for the roles they played in the entirely avoidable carnage. Behold:

10. South Africa. In 1914, the Union of South Africa was an independent unitary state with close ties to the British Empire, and it declared war on Germany alongside the British and French. South Africa wanted the neighboring German colony of South-West Africa, and its forces set out to invade, occupy, and annex the territory from the Germans, but first it had to deal with a stubborn uprising of Dutch-speaking Boers that did not like the Union’s decision to side with the Allies. It took South Africa less than a year to put down the rebellion, and then it invaded German South-West Africa (present-day Namibia). The South African army also invaded the East African German colony of Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania), but that was only in southern Africa. South Africa’s forces also saw action in western Europe, Palestine, and Egypt, and lost more than 12,000 people to World War I.

9. Canada. Unlike South Africa, which was technically independent of the United Kingdom, Canada was a dominion and thus a part of the Empire that declared war on Germany and its allies. William “Billy” Bishop was perhaps the most famous Canadian of the war, shooting down more than 70 German pilots in dogfights over the Western Front. An estimated 600,000 Canadians participated in the war effort in some form or another, and by 1918, Canada was operating its own units independent of British ones. The war contributed immensely to Canada’s eventual independence from London, but it also drove a deep wedge between English-speaking Canadians and their French-speaking brethren, despite the fact that the British and French Empires were on the same side of the war. Quebecers didn’t like having to serve under the British flag, and a strong anti-war movement based in Montreal emerged to counter British war mobilization in Canada. About 315,000 Canadians lost their lives or their limbs in World War I. 

8. India. India, the crown jewel of the worldwide British Empire, gave over 1 million sons to the British war effort against the Central Powers. Indian soldiers fought on the Western Front, the Mediterranean, East Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa. Over 60,000 died for London and another 65,000 were wounded. As an appendage of the vast British Empire, India was automatically brought into the war against the Central Powers in 1914, and Indian troops soon saw battle - the first time this happened outside of India - in the Persian Gulf against Ottoman troops. Indian troops also laid siege to German-held Tsingtao in China, expanding the Indian military’s footprint to include East Asia. Without India’s involvement in World War I, it is doubtful that the British Empire could have competed with the Central Powers.

7. Serbia (and Montenegro). Serbia, the small Balkan kingdom that started World War I, held out against a combined Central Powers invading force until 1916, before dissipating into independent guerrilla forces in the face of such a powerful onslaught. Montenegro fell shortly after Serbia did. Both countries’ contributions to WWI are mostly forgotten today, but they fought bravely and bitterly until the very end in 1918.

6. Belgium. Poor Belgium. Unlike her neighbors, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, Belgium bore the brunt of Germany’s attempt to hammer France through the Lowlands. The Netherlands was powerful enough at the time to enforce its neutrality, and Luxembourg was small enough that its surrender was honored (and wealthy enough that its sovereignty was restored in 1918), but Belgium’s neutrality was ignored by German troops, so much so that the Belgian campaign is popularly known as “The Rape of Belgium.” German occupiers razed historic buildings, shot suspects on site, and executed between 5,500 to 6,500 people between August and November of 1914 alone. Belgium’s famed Yser Front went unbroken by the Germans, and because Germany was focused on France, Belgium’s sovereignty was maintained throughout the entire conflict due to the Yser Front. Belgium is best known for slowing down German advances enough that the major Allies could regroup and refocus their efforts at repelling German attacks. Without Belgium, Paris might have fallen, a point the Germans took pains to remember in World War II.

5. Bulgaria. A relatively large state that served as a buffer between Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, the Bulgarians were put into the odd situation of being allies with the Ottoman Empire, which Bulgaria had spent centuries trying to leave. Bulgaria’s position as an ally of the Central Powers was even more precarious because Russia, which had helped Bulgaria earn its independence from Istanbul, was on the opposing side of the Central Powers. These geopolitical realities were further complicated by the fact that Bulgaria was weak from the Balkan wars it had participated in during 1912 and 1913. The Balkan wars were a series of conflicts between Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro against the Ottoman Empire, so it was all the more interesting that Bulgaria chose to side with the Central Powers against its former allies. Bulgaria’s entrance into the war in 1915 ushered in Serbia’s defeat and gave the Ottomans enough breathing room in their European campaign that Istanbul was able to finish out the war.

4. Austria-Hungary. Although Austria-Hungary was a major world power in World War I, it doesn’t get much love or attention from scholars or history buffs, at least here in the States. This is probably because it lost the war, and was totally dissolved by the victors, but its power and prominence deserves a shout-out here. Vienna was the cultural and intellectual center of Europe on the eve of the war. The empire’s troops were not as well-furnished as those in the west or in Germany, but Austro-Hungarian troops wreaked havoc on the Russian military and contributed heavily to the 1917 Revolution. An irony if there ever was one, given that Austria-Hungary was also the cultural center of counter-revolutionary thought on the continent. Check out our archives on Austria-Hungary.

3. The Dervish state. This small state in the Horn of Africa was renowned throughout Europe and the Middle East for ably fending off challenges from Italians, the British, and the Ottomans during the roughly 25 years of its existence. The Dervish state openly resisted attempts at colonization during the Scramble for Africa and was recognized as a major ally by the German Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Being a small, independent state in the Horn of Africa, Dervish’s leaders played it smart and offered Ottoman and German troops assistance lightly, preferring instead to pay close attention to the realities of its allies’ war situation. When Istanbul and Berlin surrendered in 1918, no tears were shed by the Dervish. The state was conquered by the british Empire two years later, in 1920.

2. Romania. The home of Europe’s only oil fields during World War I, the Romanian diplomatic corps was absolutely phenomenal during World War I. Although it was eventually dragged into the war on the side of the Allies in 1916, Romania spent the first two years of the war playing both sides to the best of its advantage. Unfortunately, Romania was located in a bad neighborhood, and its campaign alongside the Russians against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians did not go well. Once the Russians exited the war, in 1917, the Romanians, now surrounded by all Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, surrendered in 1918, just a few months before Germany surrendered to the Allies. Romania’s diplomatic corps was able to renegotiate its entry into the war that was officially over, and because of that the country came out of the conflict comparatively well off.

1. Italy. Good ol’ Italy. The Italian state, which has been a dark horse in European politics since its founding in the mid-nineteenth century, started off as a member of the Central Powers before smartly switching sides in 1915. The Italians clashed mostly with Austria-Hungary, but also saw action in African territories held by the Germans and Ottomans. Italy was probably the major winner of World War I, as its territory expanded but unlike France, which was also able to extend its territory, the Italian enemy it gained territory from, Austria-Hungary, ceased to exist whereas Germany (which France gained territory from) was able to survive and thus carry a grudge.

Further thoughts
There were over 18 million casualties in World War I. The war to end all wars did nothing of the kind. The League of Nations failed. Ethnonationalism and ethnic cleansing campaigns ran rampant. And, perhaps worst of all, the major powers gained glory at the expense, hard work and sacrifice of the little guys.

The pity of war, indeed.

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