World War I (Also known as the First World War, The Great War or the War to End all Wars) involved more than twenty sovereign nations over several fronts for more than four years of heavy fighting. New machines were employed for the first time during the conflict, and several that had been used previously came into their own. Millions upon millions died defending their respective countries' interests, economies were ruined, winners were given gifts of land and people to rule, and many of those who won, or suffered defeat, wound up playing different roles in the greater war to follow.
The war began when Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, a large multi-ethnic empire in central Europe, was killed during a state visit to Serbia. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, which had its independence guaranteed by the Russian empire which considered itself to be the protector of all slavic people. To counter the new great power of Germany, and to avoid another defeat like in the 1870s, France had allied with Germany. Germany was a staunch ally of Austria-Hungary and as the greater military power took the lead in what would be called the Central Powers. German military planner von Schlieffen had recognized that the biggest threat to Germany was from France in the west, and the best solution was an attack trough neutral Belgium, bypassing the heavily defended French-German border. However since Belgium was guaranteed by the British, the Central powers now faced the largest navy in the world; the royal navy.
The war started well for the germans in the west and within they were well within France, however both sides took great losses thanks to modern artillery, machine guns and rifles. Both sides now dug themselves in and the frontline became largely static. In the east however the allies had the upper hand as the Austrians were unable to hold back the hordes of men the russians could field. Germany took charge in the east as well and stopped the russians, and eventually started winning, crushing the badly led and underequipped russians until the Russian revolution in 1917 led to Russia surrendering. In the west the Germans developed stormtrooper tactics to once again go on the offensive against a France suffering from large scale desertions and war weariness, however Germanys unrestricted uboat warfare had led to the US declaring war and the Royal Navy blockaded German ports so the cities were threatened by starvation. Even with all this against them, aswell as riots which forced the german monarchy to flee the country, Germany successfully defended its borders against the combined forces of the British and French empires and the United States until November 1918.
The fact that no large battles took place in germany itself, and german press being heavily censored, led to the belief among some that the german army was undefeated and that the politicans had betrayed Germany. This become known as the Dolchstosslegende (the daggerstab legend) this and the harsh conditions imposed on Germany by the victorius allies was somes of the causes for the rise of the nazi party in Germany in the following decades.
World War I in Video Games
Entrenched in Places: A Meat Grinder Everywhere
As a game setting, World War I is a bit unconventional. The standard go-to for war, the infantry level shooter, doesn't have the same free-running combat scenario potential that the FPS favorite World War II had, because of the relative stagnation of the Western Front. There the Allied and Central powers fought at a standstill, largely relying on outmoded tactics that prevented significant gains, instead exhausting both sides through the loss of men and materiel who were stuck in fixed positions. Toward the end of the war these fronts finally changed, but as a setting for a game, there was little that could be heroic about catching a bullet while charging your opponent's trenches.
On the Eastern Front, between Central Powers on one side and Russia and allies on the other, there was greater motion, but Russia's own role in combat fell apart due to internal struggles which resulted in the revolution against the Czar.
The Southern Theaters, a loose association of several fronts that were mainly the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires' attempts to expand into sovereign states and the colonies and protectorates of the major powers, probably have the greatest potential for depiction in shooters as well as other genres, but they have largely been ignored for more accessible theaters and settings.
The New Tools of Destruction
The Machine Gun, used previously in the Crimea and other relatively minor conflicts, became a primary tool of the modern military, removing any pretense of the use of Napoleonic tactics (cavalry, fusillades, well-ordered, tightly packed lines of troops). Tanks, as well, saw use in World War I, but to a limited degree. Their tests in this war, though, were to set the stage for their much greater role in the Second World War three decades hence. Chemical weapons, including tear gas, mustard gas, and the highly lethal chlorine and phosgene, were used to devastating effect, largely as payloads for heavy artillery bombardment.
Arguably one of the greatest tools, though, was the use of quick deployment through ships, trains, and motor vehicles, sending hundreds of thousands of people, their weapons and their supplies, to points around the globe. It was probably this single increase in mobility that made the simmering tensions that had erupted between the various powers a world war and not an isolated conflict.
Mechanization at Sea
The Great War brought about huge advances in naval power, with huge ships bearing great, mobile cannons that could pound the shore, or other ships, from the safety of the sea. But the most famous sea-going weapon of this war was the submarine. It was to serve as a fierce weapon used to disrupt shipping and terrorize sea movement, as well as being used as propaganda against their users for their supposed dishonorable nature, despite Total War being a common doctrine at this time.
Anti-submarine weapons were quickly created to counter the threat, creating a compelling setting for submarine simulations.
The Freedom of the Air
One invention that developed rapidly and has been the focus of many games set in World War I is the airplane. Combat aircraft were not generally as well organized as they would be in later wars, but they served as scouts, interceptors and bombers. Propaganda on both sides emphasized pilots' chivalry, and lauded their countrymen's kills, publishing "Aces' " records to boost morale and support. The truth was often less noble, as is often the case in war, especially toward the end of the conflict. At the start few aircraft were heavily armed, many scouts having only a pistol to defend themselves, but after machine gun synchronization technology increased, the issue of heavy weapons chewing up your propellers ceased to be a problem, and deadly twin-mounted machine guns became a standard for many aircraft. These new, deadly systems could tear up the canvas and wood contraptions sending their pilots, often without parachutes, plummeting to their death, assuming they hadn't been cut to ribbons by the bullets themselves.
In addition, many games about aerial combat include sections where you shoot down lighter-than-air vehicles, namely airships and balloons. The latter were used as scouting platforms, where the volunteers would be suspended, usually protected by ground-based anti-aircraft cannons. Understandably, these were some of the first air vehicles to be equipped with parachutes for their human cargo. Zeppelins, mainly in the employ of Germany, were heavier craft with a greater lift capacity; these were often used as bombers because of this, protected by escort fighters and machine gun nests on the undercarriage. The well known problem with both of these conveyances was the hydrogen gas needed to keep them aloft (helium not being employed for this use until after the war was concluded). This highly flammable element could easily combine with oxygen if heated, forming water and giving off tremendous heat, spreading the reaction, causing a fiery explosion that would likely engulf its container. Taking full advantage of this, later fighter planes used incendiary ammunition, basically bullet grenades that exploded on impact, which they used to ignite the hydrogen and bring down the airships as quickly as possible.
The dynamics of the aerial combat, in stark contrast to the entrenched Western Front, along with the new machinery and the heavily publicized personalities of the various aces, make the air war arguably the most compelling and unique of the many situations of the war, and it's unsurprising that the vast majority of games set in World War I focus on the fight for aerial supremacy.
While games are sometimes escapism, they can also bring attention to historical events, no matter how ugly. It could be said that more games set in this time period could help educate, as well as entertain. Conflicts such as the Second World War tend to get the lion's share of attention, and it has become what some regard to be the iconic video game setting for anachronistic combat. But World War I had its own share of unique events and sacrifices, and it may be done a service by receiving more attention by developers trying for something different.