10 Facts About the Build-Up to World War One

Alex Browne

3 mins

03 Aug 2018

Here are 10 facts that tell the story of the build-up to World War One.

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.

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, while the Triple Alliance included Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. 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

But by 1914 it was all but over: Britain had 38 dreadnoughts and dreadnought battle cruisers to Germany’s 24.

3. The combined Russian & French peacetime armies in 1913-14 had 928,000 more troops than Germany & Austria Hungary

If Britain’s peacetime force of 248,000 is also included, the Triple Entente had a significant manpower advantage over the Dual Alliance.

4. After two Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913, Serbia emerged as an empowered, nationalistic state


Serbia’s 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.

5. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated around 11:00 am on Sunday 28 June 1914

The Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne was murdered by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. The assassination precipitated the July Crisis.

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6. The first war declaration was Austria-Hungary on Serbia on 28 July 1914

The declaration caused a domino effect in the alliance system. Russia mobilised her army, which Germany considered an act of war.

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7. The German war plans were called the Schleiffen Plan, and required Germany to defeat France in 6 weeks to avoid a two front war

The Schleiffen plan was fundamentally flawed: 8 of the divisions planned for use did not exist. It did fail after the German army was outmanoeuvred on The Marne.

8. 3/4s 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 with war Germany. Many British politicians were against intervention.

9. Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August after Germany had invaded Belgium

Britain was obliged by the Treaty of London (1839) to protect Belgium’s sovereignty.

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10. The Ottoman Empire entered the war on 1 November 1914 when Russia declared war

Russian infantry practising manoeuvres some time before 1914, date not recorded. Credit: Balcer~commonswiki / Commons.

Russia, followed soon by France and Britain, was compelled to declare war on the Ottoman Empire when it joined the Central Powers in August, signing the Turco-German alliance.