By 1918, most of Europe had been fighting World War I for almost four years. Although a few countries, including the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, remained neutral, most European nations took part in the war. The United Kingdom, France, Russia and most Balkan countries fought on behalf of the Allies, while Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey made up the Central Powers. Civil unrest, a pandemic and food shortages aggravated the difficulties for an already under pressure population.

War Participation

By the time the Armistice brought World War I to an end in November 1918, millions of Europeans had been killed or wounded. France alone sustained more than six million military casualties, while figures for both Germany and Austria rose over seven million. Romania's casualties totaled 535,000, or 71.4 per cent of the country's military personnel. The year 1918 witnessed several major battles on the Western Front, including the huge German assault on the Somme on March 21, and the successful Allied attack at Amiens on Aug. 8 that began the Allied advance to victory.

Food Shortages

The war did not just afflict the Europeans who fought in the trenches. On the home front, the war seriously affected people’s lives across the continent. The war had removed many farm workers from the fields, while naval and submarine warfare drastically reduced the level of food imports. An Allied blockade of Germany meant that the German population became increasingly malnourished from 1916 onward, while in Turkey food was so short that some people starved. In the Great Britain, the government introduced a food rationing system in 1918 to ensure that everyone had enough to eat.

Political Violence

The deprivations of war led to political violence in some European countries. The Russian Revolution of the previous year had resulted in the overthrow of the czar, and in March 1918 Russia withdrew from the war and effectively handed control of many of its former territories in Eastern Europe to Germany. Civil war broke out between the Communist Bolsheviks and anti-Communist Russians. In Western Europe, too, deprivation led to unrest: 350,000 people went on strike in Berlin in January 1918 in response to food shortages, while in the same month an estimated 600,000 people protested against a reduction in the flour ration in the Austrian capital Vienna.

Spanish Flu

The spread of a virulent strain of influenza known as the “Spanish Flu” increased Europe’s problems during this time. The war meant many people were tired and undernourished, in transit or crowded into factories and trenches, providing ideal conditions for the virus to spread quickly after it emerged in the spring of 1918. October and November 1918 proved to be the peak months for flu-related mortality. The flu had a fatality rate of between 2 and 2.5 per cent and particularly affected young adults: an estimated 2.64 million people died in Europe in 1918 and 1919 as a result of the pandemic.