[Civil Affairs] Causes of the First World War
It was a series of events which changed the very course of human history: it led to the rise of the Nazi party, communism, the cold war, and many important inventions ranging from antibiotics, nuclear power, and even the internet.
It is a subject matter which has been greatly debated for decades and, truthfully, there’s no correct answer to which was a bigger reason. It led to a war which left 17 million dead, 20 million wounded, and costed hundreds of billions of dollars.
These are the events that led to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.
19th Century Foundations
The First World War had its origins dating back all the way into the 1800’s. Events such as the 1839 Treaty of London which created an alliance between Britain and Belgium; the signing of the Triple Alliance in 1882 between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 are regarded as some of the foundations which allowed most of Europe to become entangled in a mass scale war within the next century.
After the Franco-Prussian War, in which the Germans were victorious, the German Empire annexed the French territory of Alsace-Lorraine. The French were more than determined to take this back and tensions between the two nations, along with the rest of Europe, would only continue to rise from this point.
Alliances and Ententes
The alliances that existed between nations in the 20th century are arguably the biggest reason the war could begin. Germany and Austria-Hungary were the first to form an alliance in 1879, ironically with the intention to maintain peace with the hopes that it would prevent an attack from Russia. This alliance would later incorporate Italy in 1882. In response, Russia and France secured their own alliance in 1892 to protect each other from the apparent rising threat of the Triple Alliance.
The Entente Cordiale was signed between France and Britain in 1904 and increased relations between the nations. This friendship would improve within the next few years as it became more apparent that Europe had been split into two opposing sides.
The role of the Balkans is arguably as important as the rest of Europe in starting the First World War. The Bosnian Crisis of 1908-1909 erupted when Austria-Hungary announced the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This angered neighboring Serbia, a Russian ally, feeling they were entitled to the land since it was a Balkan state.
The Balkan Wars a few years later weakened the Ottoman Empire and increased tensions between the sides in Europe. The Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria would also side with Germany once war broke out due to this.
The Bosnian Crisis would lead to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and, subsequently, this would start the chain reaction beginning World War I.
Going into the 20th century, tensions in Europe continued to rise as Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany adopted his foreign policy of Weltpolitik. Part of this policy to transform Germany into a global power was to expand their empire into colonies, with Africa being a main target as the Kaiser longed for a ‘place in the sun’.
This sparked the First and Second Moroccan crises, in which Germany looked to test the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France by interfering with France’s attempts to gain influence in Morocco. Expecting Anglo-French relations to weaken, the plan backfired massively on Germany when Britain did indeed assist France during the crisis, and tensions between the sides only increased.
Examples of imperialism can be seen from many countries involved in WWI including the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain, and Austria-Hungary. The resulting annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina led to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. It was this practice of expanding territory which led to disputes and increased tensions in Europe leading up to the outbreak of the war.
Nationalism is defined as an extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over over countries. These beliefs were rampant across Europe as tensions rose.
It wasn’t something seen in just a few nations, nor something shown solely by the central powers. Germany felt they were in the right to expand territory and invade France, just as Serbia felt they were entitled to Bosnia and Herzegovina, going so far as to indirectly start the First World War.
The concept of nationalism started what was a competition between both sides, as all nations looked to conquer land, build their military, and strengthen their economy.
Militarism - The Arms Race
Britain had the largest navy in the world, with it already being stronger than the next two navies combined. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany didn’t like this at all and set out to overtake them, thus beginning the Anglo-German naval arms race.
Their main aim was to create a fleet that was two-thirds the size of the British Navy. Britain’s reaction to this was to continue expanding their own navy to keep themselves ahead of Germany. In 1906, they launched the HMS Dreadnought, a large naval vessel that threatened the enemy with the very appearance of it. By the beginning of the war, Britain would have 29 of these vessels compared to Germany’s smaller number of 17.
Aside from the naval race, each nation individually began building their army, despite the fact that no one expected a large-scale war. Each country strengthened their military to act as a deterrent to other nations so they wouldn’t attack. This ultimately had the opposite effect and was a huge contribution to the outbreak of war, since everyone ended up feeling so threatened by the strength of each other’s military.
Above: HMS Dreadnought
Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand - The July Crisis
So far, we have explored what caused tensions in Europe to reach an all-time high, but all of the above factors would have become meaningless if nothing would had happened to actually trigger the start of the war. This is where the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand came into place to ignite the building barrels of oil.
Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne before his death in 1914. On the 28th of June he visited Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been recently annexed by Austria-Hungary. This had angered Serbia who felt that they were entitled to the capital rather than Austria-Hungary. While on the way back from the town hall, the driver of the motorcade Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were in mistakenly took the wrong route and turned off the main road. Here, Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, shot and killed Franz Ferdinand and Sophie.
The event sparked outrage from Austria-Hungary, who subsequently gave a 10-point ultimatum to Serbia, threatening war if their demands were not met. Serbia agreed to everything except point 6, that Austro-Hungarian police would be able to operate in Serbia. This wasn’t good enough for Austria-Hungary, who responded by declaring war on Serbia a full month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
This is where all the alliances and tensions that had built up came into play. Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary to defend their ally, Serbia; Germany declared war on Russia and France to defend their ally Austria-Hungary, and Europe became entangled in war. Other nations from across the world, such as the USA, Japan, and The Ottoman Empire, would also become involved as the war progressed. Italy, although part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, didn’t join the Central Powers in the war, rather switching sides a year later, joining the Allied Powers.
The Schlieffen Plan and the Treaty Of London
Britain did not originally enter the war alongside Russia and France during the July Crisis. Rather, it was due to the Treaty of London in 1839 which created an alliance with Britain and Belgium, which made Britain declare war on Germany.
Germany had prepared a plan for the start of the war all the way back in 1897: the Schlieffen Plan. It relied on Germany being at war with both France and Russia at the same time, and that Russia would take a long time to mobilize their troops. The plan went wrong when Germany invaded neutral Belgium to get to France while Russia was able to mobilize its troops much faster than expected; this meant that they had to move back to the Eastern front to fight Russia.
Things got even worse when Britain declared war on Germany for stepping through Belgium. The Schlieffen Plan had also relied on Britain not honoring its agreement with Belgium which had been signed 75 years prior to the outbreak of war. Britain did the contrary and, on the 4th August 1914, entered the war.
Overall, it’s near enough impossible to pinpoint a more important reason for the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Although the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered the chain of events that began the war, this is only often referred to as ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’, and, with the tensions in Europe as high as they were, war was only inevitable either way.
Written by PFC Laird.
Edited by WO1 Brewer.
Formatted by PFC Laird.