Why Did the Great Powers Fail to Prevent World War One?

Peter Curry

4 mins

28 Jul 2014

Image credit: John Warwick Brooke

Few of the Great Powers actively sought war in 1914. While the usual interpretation holds that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand acted as a catalyst for war, that does not mean that efforts to maintain peace were entirely lacking.

In response to the assassination, Austrian citizens grew angry at what they perceived as Serbian hostility. From Budapest, the British Consul-General reported: ‘A wave of blind hatred for Serbia and everything Serbian is sweeping over the country.’

The German Kaiser too was infuriated: ‘The Serbs must be disposed of, and that right soon!’ he noted in the margin of a telegram from his Austrian ambassador. Against his ambassador’s remark that ‘only a mild punishment’ might be imposed on Serbia, the Kaiser wrote: ‘I hope not.’

Yet these sentiments did not make all out war inevitable. The Kaiser might have hoped for a swift Austrian victory over Serbia, with no outside engagement.

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As a British naval squadron sailed from Kiel that same day, the British admiral signalled to the German Fleet: ‘Friends in past, and friends for ever.’

In Germany, fears abounded about the growing threat of Russia. On 7 July Bethmann-Hollweg, the German Chancellor, commented: ‘The future lies with Russia, she grows and grows, and lies on us like a nightmare.’ He wrote another letter the next day suggesting that ‘not only the extremists’ in Berlin ‘but even level-headed politicians are worried at the increases in Russian strength, and the imminence of Russian attack.’

One of the factors influencing the Kaiser’s insistence on war may have been that he believed the Russians would not respond to an attack at this stage in their development. The Kaiser wrote to an Austrian ambassador that Russia was ‘in no way prepared for war’ and that the Austrians would regret it if ‘we did not make use of the present moment, which is all in our favour.’

Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Germany. Credit: German Federal Archives / Commons.

British officials did not believe that the assassination in Sarajevo necessarily meant war either. Sir Arthur Nicolson, the senior civil servant at the British Foreign Office, wrote a letter which stated, ‘the tragedy which has just taken place in Sarajevo will not, I trust, lead to further complications.’ He wrote another letter to a different ambassador, arguing that he had ‘doubts as to whether Austria will take any action of a serious character.’ He expected ‘the storm to blow over.’

The British response

Despite partially mobilising its fleet in response to the German naval mobilisation, the British were not committed to war at first.

Germany was also keen to ensure that Britain did not enter the war.

The Kaiser was optimistic about British neutrality. His brother Prince Henry had met with his cousin King George V whilst on a yachting trip in Britain. He reported that the king remarked: ‘We shall try all we can to keep out of this and shall remain neutral’.

The Kaiser gave more attention to this message than to any other reports from London or the assessments of his naval intelligence department. When Admiral Tirpitz expressed his doubts that Britain would remain neutral the Kaiser replied: ‘I have the word of a King, and that is good enough for me.’

France meanwhile was putting pressure on Britain to commit to supporting them if Germany attacked.

German troops march to war after being mobilised in 1914. Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.

The public mood in France was intensely patriotic with many seeing a coming war as an opportunity to make up for the defeats to Germany in the 19th century. They hoped to recover the province of Alsace-Lorraine. Leading anti-war figure Jean Jarré was assassinated as the patriotic fervour grew.

Confusion and mistakes

In mid-July, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, told the House of Commons there would be no problem regulating the disputes that arose between nations. He argued that relations with Germany were better than they had been for some years and that the next budget ought to show an economy on armaments.

That evening the Austrian ultimatum was delivered to Belgrade.

The Serbians accepted almost all of the humiliating demands.

When the Kaiser read the full text of the ultimatum, he could see no reason at all for Austria to declare war, writing in response to the Serbian reply: ‘A great moral victory for Vienna; but with it every reason for war is removed. On the strength of this I should never have ordered mobilisation.’

Half an hour after the Serbian response was received by Austria, the Austrian Ambassador, Baron Giesl, left Belgrade.

The Serbian government withdrew from their capital immediately to the provincial town of Nis.

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In Russia, the Tsar stressed that Russia could not be indifferent to the fate of Serbia. In response, he proposed negotiations with Vienna. The Austrians rejected the offer. A British attempt that same day to convene a four-power conference of Britain, Germany, France and Italy was rejected by Germany on the grounds that such a conference ‘was not practicable’.

That day the British War Office ordered General Smith-Dorrien to guard ‘all vulnerable points’ in southern Britain.

Rejected ultimatums

As Austria ramped up its aggression against Serbia, Germany issued an ultimatum to Serbia’s ally Russia, who was mobilising in response. Russia rejected the ultimatum and continued to mobilise.

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

Yet even at this stage, with nations mobilising on both sides, the Tsar appealed to the Kaiser to try and prevent a Russo-German clash. ‘Our long proved friendship must succeed with God’s help, in avoiding bloodshed,’ he telegraphed.

But both countries were almost fully mobilised at this point. Their opposing strategies required the rapid capture of key objectives and to stand down now would leave them vulnerable. Winston Churchill responded to the Austrian declaration of war in a letter to his wife:

‘I wondered whether those stupid Kings and Emperors could not assemble together and revivify kingship by saving the nations from hell but we all drift on in a kind of dull cataleptic trance. As if it was somebody else’s operation.’

Churchill went on to propose to the British Cabinet that the European sovereigns should ‘be brought together for the sake of peace’.

Yet soon after, Germany’s attack on Belgium drew Britain into the war too.