Key Historical Figures of World War I

Ferdinand Foch, French general and Allied Supreme Commander in World War I, 26 March 1918.
Ferdinand Foch, French general and Allied Supreme Commander in World War I, 26 March 1918. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

World War 1 lasted just over four years, and included many belligerent nations. Consequently, there are a lot of famous names involved. This listing is a guide to the key figures you need to know about.

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Prime Minister Herbert Asquith

Mr. Asquith inspecting the Royal Flying Corps, 1915.
Mr. Asquith inspecting the Royal Flying Corps, 1915. Print Collector / Getty Images

Prime Minister of Britain since 1908, he oversaw Britain’s entry into World War One when he underestimated the scale of the July crisis and relied on the judgment of colleagues who had supported the Boer war. He struggled to unite his government, and after the disasters of the Somme and a rising in Ireland was forced out by a mixture of press and political pressure.

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Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg

German Chancelor Bethmann-Hollweg
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

As Chancellor of Imperial Germany from 1909 until the start of war, it was Hollweg’s job to try and prise apart the triple alliance of Britain, France, and Russia; he was unsuccessful, thanks partly to the actions of other Germans. He managed to calm international events in the years before the war but seems to have developed a fatalism by 1914 and he gave Austria-Hungary backing. He appears to have tried to direct the army east, to meet Russia and avoid antagonizing France but lacked the power. He was in charge of the September Programme, which spelt out enormous war aims, and spent the next three years trying to balance the divisions in Germany and maintain some diplomatic weight despite the actions of the military, but was worn down into accepting Unrestricted Submarine Warfare and ousted by the military and the rising Reichstag parliament.

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General Aleksey Brusilov

Aleksei Alekseevich Brusilov (1853-1926) Russian general, 1917.
From Will's Cigarettes 'Allied Army Leaders' cigarette card series, 1917. Print Collector / Getty Images

The most talented and successful Russian commander of the First World War, Brusilov started the conflict in charge of the Russian Eighth Army, where he contributed greatly to success in Galicia in 1914. By 1916 he had stood out enough to be put in charge of the southwest Eastern Front, and the Brusilov offensive of 1916 was hugely successful by the standards of the conflict, capturing hundreds of thousands of prisoners, taking territory, and distracting the Germans from Verdun at a key moment. However, the victory was not decisive, and the army began to lose further morale. Russia soon fell to revolution, and Brusilov found himself with no army to command. After a period of difficulty, he later commanded Red forces in the Russian Civil War.

Winston Churchill
British statesman Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965) speaks at the opening of the YMCA Hostel for munition workers at Enfield, Middlesex, 20th September 1915. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

As First Lord of the Admiralty when war broke out, Churchill was instrumental in keeping the fleet safe and ready to act as events unfolded. He oversaw the movement of the BEF perfectly, but his interventions, appointments, and actions made him enemies and undermined his previous reputation for successful dynamism. Associated heavily with the Gallipoli expedition, in which he made key mistakes, he lost the job in 1915 but decided to command a unit on the Western Front, doing so in 1915-16. In 1917, Lloyd George brought him back to government as Minister of Munitions, where he made a great contribution to supplying the army, and again promoted tanks.

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Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau

circa 1917. Keystone / Getty Images

Clemenceau had established a formidable reputation before the First World War, thanks to his radicalism, his politics, and his journalism. When war broke out he resisted offers to join the government and used his position to attack any faults he saw in the army, and he saw many. By 1917, with the French war effort apparently failing, the country turned to Clemenceau to halt the slide. With boundless energy, iron will and fierce belief, Clemenceau drove France through total war and the successful conclusion of the conflict. He wished to inflict a brutally harsh peace on Germany and has been accused of losing the peace.

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General Erich von Falkenhayn

General Erich von Falkenhayn
circa 1913. Albert Meyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although Moltke tried to use him as a scapegoat in 1914, Falkenhayn was chosen to replace Moltke late in 1914. He believed victory would be won in the west and only sent troops east with reservation, earning him the enmity of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, but did enough to ensure the conquest of Serbia. In 1916 he unveiled his coldly pragmatic plan for the west, the ​war of attrition at Verdun, but lost sight of his objectives and saw the Germans suffer equal casualties. When an under-supported east suffered setbacks, he was further weakened and replaced by Hindenburg and Ludendorff. He then took command of an army and defeated Romania, but failed to repeat the success in Palestine and Lithuania.

Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria, and his wife Sophie riding in an open carriage at Sarajevo shortly before their assassination.
Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria, and his wife Sophie riding in an open carriage at Sarajevo shortly before their assassination. Henry Guttmann / Getty Images

It was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, which sparked off the First World War. Ferdinand wasn’t well liked in Austria-Hungary, partly because he was a difficult man to deal with, and partly because he wished to reform Hungary to give the Slavs more say, but he acted as a check on Austrian actions immediately before the war, moderating response and helping to avoid conflict.

Field Marshal Sir John French
Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

A cavalry commander who made his name in Britain’s colonial wars, French was the first commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the war. His early experiences of modern warfare at Mons gave him the belief that the BEF was at risk of being wiped out, and he may have grown clinically depressed as the war continued in 1914, missing chances to act. He was also suspicious of the French and had to be persuaded by a personal visit from Kitchener to keep the BEF fighting. As those above and below him grew frustrated, French was seen to fail greatly in the battles of 1915 and replaced by Haig at the end of the year.

Ferdinand Foch, French general and Allied Supreme Commander in World War I, 26 March 1918.
Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

Before the war broke out, Foch’s military theories – which argued the French soldier was disposed to attacking – heavily influenced the development of the French army. At the start of the war, he was given troops to command but made his name in collaborating and ​coordinating with other allied commanders. When Joffre fell he was sidelined, but made a similar impression working in Italy, and won over allied leaders enough to become the Allied Supreme Commander on the Western Front, where his sheer personality and guile helped him maintain success for just about long enough.

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Emperor Franz Josef Habsburg I

Franz Joseph I (1830-1916), Emperor of Austria.
Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef I spent much of his sixty-eight-year reign keeping an increasingly fractious empire together. He was largely against war, which he felt would destabilize the nation, and the capture of Bosnia in 1908 was an aberration. However, in 1914 he appears to have changed his mind after the assassination of his heir Franz Ferdinand, and it’s possible the weight of family tragedies, as well as the pressures of holding the empire intact, made him allow a war to punish Serbia. He died in 1916, and with him went a great deal of the personal support that had held the empire together.

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Sir Douglas Haig

Sir Douglas Haig
Central Press / Getty Images

A former cavalry commander, Haig worked as Commander of the British 1st Army in 1915, and used his political connections to criticize the BEF’s commander, French, and have himself named replacement at the end of the year. For the remainder of the war, Haig led the British army, mixing faith that a breakthrough could be achieved on the Western Front with a total imperturbability at the human cost, which he believed was inevitable in modern war. He was certain victory should be actively pursued or else the war would last decades, and in 1918 his policy of wearing the Germans down and developments in supply and tactics meant he oversaw victories. Despite a recent turn to his defense, he remains the most controversial figure in the English historiography, for some a bungler who wasted millions of lives, for others a determined winner.

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Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg

Hindenburg Presenting Iron Crosses
Field Marshal General Paul von Hindenburg presents Iron Crosses to soldiers of the Third Guard Regiment. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Hindenburg was called out of retirement in 1914 to command the Eastern Front in tandem with the formidable talents of Ludendorff. He was soon just the gloss on Ludendorff’s decisions, but was still officially in charge and given total command of the war with Ludendorff. Despite the failure of Germany in the war, he remained hugely popular and would go on to become the President of Germany who appointed Hitler.

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Conrad von Hötzendorf

Conrad von Hötzendorf
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The head of the Austro-Hungarian army, Conrad is perhaps the individual most responsible for the outbreak of World War One. Before 1914 he had called for war perhaps over fifty times, and he believed strong action against rival powers was needed to maintain the empire’s integrity. He wildly overestimated what the Austrian army could achieve, and put in place imaginative plans with little regard to reality. He started the war by having to divide his forces, thus making little impact on either zone, and continued to fail. He was replaced in February 1917.

General Joffre
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

As Chief of the French General Staff from 1911, Joffre did much to shape the way France would respond to a war, and as Joffre believed in a strong offense, this involved promoting aggressive officers and pursuing Plan XVIII: an invasion of Alsace-Lorraine. He advocated full and fast mobilization during the July Crisis of 1914 but found his preconceptions shattered by the reality of war. Almost at the last minute, he changed plans to stop Germany just short of Paris, and his calmness and unflustered nature contributed to this victory. However, over the next year, a succession of critics eroded his reputation, and he fell open to heavy attack when his plans for Verdun were seen to have created that crisis. In December 1916 he was removed from command, made a Marshal, and reduced to performing ceremonies.

Kemal Ataturk
Keystone / Getty Images

A professional Turkish soldier who predicted that Germany would lose a major conflict, Kemal was nonetheless given a command when the Ottoman Empire joined Germany in the war, albeit after a period of waiting. Kemal was sent to the Gallipoli Peninsula, where he played a key role in defeating the Entente invasion, propelling him to the international stage. He was then sent to fight Russia, winning victories, and to Syria and Iraq. Resigning in disgust at the state of the army, he suffered from health problems before recovering and being sent to Syria again. As Ataturk, he would later lead a rebellion and found the modern state of Turkey.

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Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener

Lord Kitchener
Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

A famed imperial commander, Kitchener was appointed British War Minister in 1914 more for his reputation than his ability to organize. He almost immediately brought a realism to the cabinet, claiming the war would last years and require as large an army Britain could manage. He used his fame to recruit two million volunteers through a campaign which featured his face, and kept French and the BEF in the war. However, he was a failure in other aspects, such as securing Britain’s turn to total war or providing a coherent organizational structure. Slowly sidelined during 1915, Kitchener’s public reputation was so great he couldn’t be fired, but he drowned in 1916 when his ship, traveling to Russia, was sunk.

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Lenin Speaking in Red Square, 1918
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Although by 1915 his opposition to the war meant that he was only the leader of a terribly small socialist faction, by the end of 1917 his continued call for peace, bread and land had helped him take charge of a coup d’etat to lead Russia. He overruled fellow Bolsheviks who wanted to continue the ​war, and entered into talks with Germany which turned into the Brest-Litovsk treaty.

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British Prime Minister Lloyd-George

PM At Military Camp
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Lloyd-George’s political reputation in the years before the First World War was one of a vocal anti-war liberal reformer. Once conflict broke out in 1914 he read the public mood and was instrumental in getting the Liberals to support intervention. He was an early ‘Easterner’ – wanting to attack the Central Powers away from the Western Front – and as Minister for Munitions in 1915 intervened to improve production, throwing open the industrial workplace to women and competition. After politicking in 1916, he became Prime Minister, determined to win the war but save British lives from his commanders, of whom he was deeply suspicious and with whom he warred. After victory in 1918, he personally wanted a careful peace settlement but was pushed into harsher treatment of Germany by his allies.

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General Erich Ludendorff

Erich Ludendorff
General Erich Ludendorff. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

A professional soldier who had gained a political reputation, Ludendorff rose in esteem in seizing Liege in 1914 and was appointed Hindenburg’s Chief of Staff in the east in 1914 so he could make an impact. The pair – but chiefly Ludendorff with his great talents – soon inflicted defeats on Russia and pushed them right back. Ludendorff’s reputation and politicking saw he and Hindenburg appointed in charge of the entire war, and it was Ludendorff who drew up the Hindenburg Programme to allow Total War. Ludendorff’s power grew, and he both authorized Unrestricted Submarine Warfare and tried to win a decisive victory in the west in 1918. The failure of both – he innovated tactically, but drew the wrong strategic conclusions – caused him a mental collapse. He recovered to call for an armistice and to create a German scapegoat and effectively started the ‘Stabbed in the Back’ Myth.

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Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke
Nicola Perscheid [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Moltke was the nephew of his great great namesake,, but suffered an inferiority complex to him. As Chief of Staff in 1914, Moltke thought war with Russia was inevitable, and it was he who had the responsibility of implementing the Schlieffen Plan, which he modified but failed to plan through properly pre-war. His changes to the plan and the failure of the German offensive on the Western Front, which owed a deal to his inability to cope with events as they developed, opened him up to criticism and he was replaced as Commander in Chief in September 1914 by Falkenhayn.

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Robert-Georges Nivelle

Robert Nivelle
Paul Thompson/FPG / Getty Images

A brigade commander in the early part of the war, Nivelle rose to command first a French division and then 3rd Corps at Verdun. As Joffre grew wary of Petain’s success Nivelle was promoted to command the 2nd Army at Verdun, and had great success in using creeping barrages and infantry attacks to retake land. In December 1916 he was chosen to succeed Joffre as head of the French forces, and his belief in artillery supported frontal assaults was so persuasive the British put their troops under him. However, his grand attack in 1917 failed to match his rhetoric, and the French army mutinied as a result. He was replaced after just five months and sent to Africa.

General Pershing's arival in Paris
General Pershing's arrival in Paris, 4th July 1917. Marks the American entry into WW1 on the side of the Allies. Caption: 'Vivent les Etats - Unis'/ 'Hurray for the United States!'. Culture Club / Getty Images

Pershing was selected by US President Wilson to command the American Expeditionary Force in 1917. Pershing immediately confounded his colleagues by calling for a million-strong army by 1918, and three million by 1919; his recommendations were accepted. He kept the AEF together as an independent force, only putting US troops under allied command during the crisis of early 1918. He led the AEF through successful operations in the later part of 1918 and survived the war reputation largely intact.

General Philippe Petain, commander of the French Second Army, Verdun, France, 1916.
Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

A professional soldier, Pétain moved slowly up the military hierarchy because he favored a more offensive and integrated approach than the all-out attack popular at the time. He was promoted during the war but came to national prominence when he was chosen to defend Verdun once the fortress complex seemed in danger of failing. His skill and organization allowed him to do so successfully, until a jealous Joffre promoted him away. When the Nivelle offensive in 1917 led to mutiny, Pétain took over and calmed the soldiers into remaining a working army – often through personal intervention - and commanded successful attacks in 1918, although he showed signs of a worrying fatalism that saw Foch promoted above him to keep a grip. Sadly, a later war would ruin all he achieved in this one.

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Raymond Poincaré

Raymond Poincaré
Imagno / Getty Images

As President of France from 1913, he believed war with Germany was inevitable and prepared France appropriately: improve the alliance with Russia and Britain, and expand conscription to create an army equal to Germany. He was in Russia during much of the July crisis and was criticized for not doing enough to stop the war. During the conflict, he tried to keep the union of government factions together but lost power to the military, and after the chaos of 1917 was forced to invite an old rival, Clemenceau, into power as Prime Minister; Clemenceau then took the lead over Poincaré.

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Gavrilo Princip

Gavrilo Princip
Gavrilo Princip is escorted to the courtroom. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

A young and naïve Bosnian Serb from a peasant family, Princip was the man who succeeded – at the second attempt – to kill Franz Ferdinand, the trigger event for World War One. The extent of the support he received from Serbia is debated, but it’s likely he was heavily supported by them, and a change of mind higher up came too late to stop him. Princip doesn’t appear to have held much of an opinion about the consequences of his actions and died in 1918 during a twenty-year prison sentence.

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, 1915. Artist: Boris Mikhajlovich Kustodiev
Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

A man who wished for Russia to gain territory in the Balkans and Asia, Nicholas II also disliked war and tried to avoid conflict during the July crisis. Once war began, the autocratic Tsar refused to allow the liberals or elected Duma officials a say in the running, alienating them; he was also paranoid of any criticism. As Russia faced multiple military defeats, Nicolas took personal command in September 1915; consequently, the failures of a Russia unprepared for modern war were associated firmly with him. These failures, and his attempt to crush dissent by force, led to a revolution and his abdication. He was killed by Bolsheviks in 1918.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II
Imagno / Getty Images

The Kaiser was the official head (Emperor) of Germany during World War 1 but lost much practical power to military experts early on, and almost all to Hindenburg and Ludendorff in the final years. He was forced to abdicate as Germany rebelled late in 1918, and he didn’t know the announcement was being made for him. The Kaiser was a leading verbal saber rattler before the war – his personal touch caused a number of crises and he was passionate about gaining colonies - but calmed down notably as the war progressed and he was sidelined. Despite some Allied demands for a trial, he lived in peace in the Netherlands until his death in 1940.

President Wilson Opens The Baseball Season
President Woodrow Wilson throwing out the first ball on opening day of the baseball season, Washington, DC, 1916. Underwood Archives / Getty Images

US President from 1912, Wilson’s experiences of the US Civil War gave him a lifetime enmity towards war, and when World War One started he was determined to keep the US neutral. However, as the Entente powers grew in debt to the US, the messianic Wilson became convinced he could offer mediation and establish a new international order. He was re-elected on the promise of keeping the US neutral, but when the Germans started Unrestricted Submarine Warfare he entered the war determined to impose his vision of peace on all the belligerents, as governed by his Fourteen Points plan. He had some effect at Versailles, but couldn’t totally negate the French, and the US refused to support the League of Nations, ruining his planned new world.