Historians are still divided over why exactly the war happened, which events were most significant and who ultimately bears the burden of responsibility. On the last point it seems to be shared fairly evenly – a complex and fragile alliance network created the framework for a pan-European conflict, and it only required a conflagration between two minor nations to send the larger countries hurtling towards war. Here are 10 facts that tell the story of the build-up to World War One.
1. In 1914 Europe was divided between two major alliance systems – the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente
The Triple Entente consisted of France, Russia and Great Britain, and was formed following three earlier treaties between the individual countries – the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1894, the Entente Cordiale in 1904 and the Ango-Russian Entene in 1907. The trio made up the Allied Powers during World War One, each agreeing to only accept a peace treaty they all agreed upon.
Their counterparts were the Triple Alliance that included Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, an alliance that was agreed in 1882. Each member agreed to assist the others should they be attacked by another power, however once war broke out Italy reneged on its commitment.
2. Britain and Germany were engaged in a naval arms race in the early 20th century
Relations between the two countries had suffered tensions for over many decades, and in 1897 Germany began building a fleet in being (a fleet so large it extended influence without ever leaving port), in order for the British government to make diplomatic concessions.
A naval arms race ensued with the rapid building of large battleships called dreadnoughts, and further tensions grew. By 1914 it was all but over: Britain had 38 dreadnoughts and dreadnought battle cruisers to Germany’s 24.
3. The Triple Entente had a substantial combined peacetime army
The Russian & French peacetime armies alone had 928,000 more troops than Germany & Austria Hungary in 1913-14. If Britain’s peacetime force of 248,000 is also included, the Triple Entente had a significant manpower advantage over the Dual Alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
4. Serbia’s newfound power was a threat to the East
After two Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913, Serbia emerged as an empowered, nationalistic state. Their pan-Slavic intentions ran counter to Austro-Hungary’s imperial ambitions. Any conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary threatened to at least involve Russia, who was sympathetic to Serbian nationalism.
A small move in the wrong direction could trigger the involvement of the biggest powers in Europe.
5. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated around 11:00 am on Sunday 28 June 1914
This small move came in the form of the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, who was murdered by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. The assassination precipitated the July Crisis, as official Serbian involvement was clear.
6. The first war declaration was Austria-Hungary on Serbia on 28 July 1914
In response to this brazen attack, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, causing a domino effect in the alliance system. Russia mobilised their army in defence of their Slavic ally Serbia, which Germany considered an act of war against Austria-Hungary, their sworn ally. They declared war on Russia on 1 August, 1914.
7. The initial German war plans targeted France first
The Schlieffen Plan, as it was termed, required Germany to defeat France in 6 weeks to avoid a two front war. These plans were fundamentally flawed however: 8 of the divisions planned for use did not exist.
It failed after the German army was outmanoeuvred on The Marne by French and British Expeditionary forces.
8. Three-quarters of the British parliamentary party were for “absolute non-interference at any price”
According to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Britain was not required by any treaty to support France or Russia in the event of war Germany, despite their alliance. Many British politicians were against intervention.
Asquith himself stated that,
“We are within measurable, or imaginable, distance of a real Armageddon. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.”
9. Britain was forced to declare war on Germany on 4 August after Germany had invaded Belgium
By 4 August however, Germany invaded Belgium. Obliged by the Treaty of London, 1839 to protect Belgium’s sovereignty, Britain would be required to enter the war. Parliament issued an ultimatum to Germany demanding that it leave Belgian soil by midnight Berlin time, however no response was received.
Asquith’s wife Margot recalled the moment as she sat with him in the Cabinet room:
“The clock on the mantelpiece hammered out the hour and when the last beat of midnight struck it was as silent as dawn. We were at War.”
10. The Ottoman Empire entered the war on 1 November 1914 when Russia declared war
On 29 October, the Ottoman Empire staged a surprise attack on Russia’s Black Sea coast after signing the Turco-German alliance. Russia, followed soon by allies France and Britain, were compelled to declare war on the Empire, bringing the final key European power into the war. Much of the conflict involving the Ottoman Empire would take place on the war’s Middle Eastern theatre.
With the various countries and alliances now set on war, the events of the next four years would leave Europe a very different place by 1918.