Was War Inevitable?
This question has been debated by historians for many years. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems as if the treaties and alliances entered into before the war were destined to start a war. The events following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand seem to have had a particular inevitability about them. But, was war always likely to break out? How much did the actions of the individuals influence events? Was there ever a possibility of a peaceful solution? Was there anyone who actually wanted to see a war? The origins of The Great War (as contemporaries called it) is one of the great debates in history. This page will present you with some of the more important issues, events and personalities that directly contributed to war breaking out in 1914.
Who was Involved
It would be convenient if the democracies were lined up on one side and the totalitarian regimes lined up on the other. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Totalitarian regimes were found in both alliance systems as were elements at least of democratic institutions.

On the side of the Central Powers, Germany was far and away the dominant partner. The industrial state had expanded rapidly at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Its peoples were hard working, conscientious and patriotic. Wilhelm II became Kaiser (Emperor) in 1888. Wilhelm was an ambitious leader who was keen to see Germany take its rightful place on the world stage. His aggressive foreign policy stance saw him fall out with the almost universally admired chancellor and diplomat Otto von Bismarck in 1890. The Reichstag (German Parliament) could exert considerable influence on Wilhelm and his Chancellor if it wanted to, however it tended to concentrate its power on domestic issues and pretty much left Wilhelm alone to pursue his overseas ambitions.

Military Expenditure(1)1905 - 1914
Austria-Hungary was very much the junior power to its German neighbour to the north. Despite having a very long history, the ruling house of Hapsburg ruled over a fractious conglomeration of small nations. Slavs, germans, muslims, catholics, orthodox Christians were all under the same umbrella nation. These nationalities were as likely to fight each other or to fight against their overlords as they were to fight against any external threats. This fractured empire was much weaker than its size and reputation would have the other European powers believe.

Technically, Italy was a member of the Triple Alliance from 1882. Italy itself had only united into a single country in 1859. It was therefore a relatively weak and inexperienced player on the international scene. It was Italy that got itself into an awful mess in its colonies in 1896. An Italian army was defeated by a native Ethiopian army at the Battle of Adowa. For a modern European army to be defeated by a native army was extremely embarrassing for the young nation. In the end, Italy refused to join the Central Powers when war broke out in 1914 and eventually joined the allies in 1915.

Before the outbreak of the war, Germany had also spent diplomatic energy on creating good relations with Turkey. This effort was ultimately repaid in October 1914, when the Ottomans confirmed that they would join with the Central Powers. Likewise, Bulgaria, seeing the imminent defeat of Serbia, joined with the Central Powers in October 1915.

Military Expenditure(1)1905 - 1914
On the Allies side, France and Russia dominated the partnership. They had come together back in 1892 when it was becoming clear that Kaiser Wilhelm II was becoming increasingly aggressive in his foreign policy. France was a weak democracy, governments fell on a regular basis. In fact, in the five years before the outbreak of the war, France had no less than ten different governments. France was also deeply suspicious of the Germans after they had been defeated by them in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71. They had also been forced to cede Alsace and Lorraine to Germany during this war and were keen to get it back.

Russia was probably the most totalitarian state in Europe at this time. Tsar Nicholas II had complete control over life and death over the millions of his subjects. He was a weak ruler in charge of a corrupt government made up of aristocrats who were completely out of touch with the mass of peasants and workers. Revolutionaries, strikers and rioters were all trying to force concessions from the absolute monarchy. In 1905 and 1911, civil order in Russia came close to collapsing. Russia's reputation as a military power was further questioned when they lost to Japan in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5. It did not help that they were defeated on both land and sea by the non-European power.

Britain joined the Allied nations relatively late. At the end of the Nineteenth Century, Britain had thought that its power was strong enough that it did not need any allies. Britain's leaders followed a policy known as 'Splendid Isolation'. However, colonial wars such as the Boer War demonstrated how alone Britain had really become. Britain was also becoming increasingly worried about the commercial, political and military capabilities of the two blocks of opposing powers. Britain may have been stronger than any other individual nation, but it would find it difficult to remain stronger than a combination of nations. Britain felt most threatened by the policies pursued by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II and so decided to join first with France and then with Russia. In the pre-war years, Britain was itself undergoing some profound political changes with the Liberal government encouraging a whole series of liberal reforms.

These were the two major power blocs that were facing each other in 1914. There was no ideology binding these nations to each other or against each other. They all had their own pragmatic reasons for belonging to one side or the other.

The Stakes
British attend German Manoeuvres
The ruling family of Austria-Hungary probably had the most to lose out of any of the ruling elites. They were ruling over a group of nations who were becoming more and more concerned with their rights and the rights of their co-nationalists. Also, Austria-Hungary had not industrialised or modernised as successfully as its neighbours had. Its economy was stagnating as the demands upon the state were increasing.

Germany had different problems. Germany had expanded and industrialised very successfully. However, it felt that its future growth possibilities were limited. This was mainly because it thought that France and Britain had taken the best colonies around the world. Germany felt that it could not rely on where the raw materials for its industries would come from. Also, it would have fewer markets to sell its products to. Germany did try and take colonies in the late Nineteenth Century, but did indeed find that they were left with a poor pick.

The Ottoman Empire had been in decline as a power for over a century. Paradoxically, they had relied on Britain to protect them from external threats (usually Russia) throughout the Nineteenth Century. They were trying to hold on to what they had. However, they still regarded Russia as providing the greatest threat to their territory.

Russia itself was having huge domestic problems of its own. Revolutionaries were constantly challenging the power of the Russian state to breaking point. Russia saw enemies everywhere. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians were obvious threats from the West. The Muslims were a threat from the South, the Japanese had ended Russian expansion in the East. The Russians had even been deeply suspicious of British activity in India until they came to an agreement with one another in 1907.

France was worried about a return of the Germans. After all, they had been defeated by a German army within living memory. Since that time, the German state had become more, not less, powerful. There were also vocal calls for a war with Germany to regain the lands that it had lost during that Franco-Prussian war. The Germans were also becoming more competitive with France in the colonial sphere.

This Imperial rivalry also affected relations with Britain. Previously, Britain and France had been imperial rivals with one another but now both were agreed that Germany posed the greater danger to their empires. Britain was also particularly concerned with the German Tirpitz plan. This naval expansion plan seriously challenged Britain's supremacy of the seas. Britain had never had a large army because it could depend on the Royal Navy to guard its interests. The Tirpitz plan put this strategy into doubt. Britain was deeply concerned and responded with a huge and revolutionary naval expansion plan of its own.

There were a number of significant events that occurred before war broke out. Their significance is often debated by historians who use them to build their own particular case for war being inevitable or not in 1914. This section looks back at some of the events that are often cited:

The 1839 Treaty of London. Despite occuring some 75 years earlier, this treaty was actually used as the excuse by Britain for entering the war. In the original treaty, the five great powers (including Britain) guaranteed Belgium as an 'independent and perpetually neutral state.'

The 1870/71 Franco-Prussian War. The defeat of France by the Prussian state was deeply humiliating to the French. The fact that Prussia took the French regions of Alsace and Lorraine as reparations was even more humiliating. The Prussians declared themselves to be the head of a German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.

The 1879 Dual Alliance Only fifteen years earlier, Germany and Austria had been at war with each other. In 1879, Bismarck had improved relations so much that they could enter into an alliance with one another.

The 1882 Triple Allliance Italy was annoyed with the French annexation of Tunisia. As Tunisia was the closest African territory to the mainland of Italy, Italy had had plans to colonise Tunisia itself. It therefore joined with Germany and Austria-Hungary as a form of protest.

The 1882 Egypt Riots in Alexandria lead to an Anglo-French force being sent to Egypt. At the last moment, the French pull back from the mission. The British take charge in Egypt alone.

The 1884 Berlin Conference Bismarck used this conference to discuss colonial affairs to maintain rivarly between France and Britain. Germany also takes colonies of its own in Africa.

The 1887 Russian Reinsurance Treaty Bismarck created this Treaty to stop the Russians being worried by the strength of the Triple Alliance.

1890 Bismarck is sacked Two years after the Kaiser came to power, Bismarck and Wilhelm clash over their respective styles. Bismarck leaves politics.

The 1890 Reinsurance Treaty lapses Germany's new Chancellor Caprivi drops the agreement Germany had with Russia.

The 1892 Franco-Russian Alliance France and Russia agree to help one another against the powerful Triple Alliance

The 1896 Adowa The Italian army was humiliatingly defeated by an Ethiopian army at the battle of Adowa.

The 1898 Fashoda Crisis France and Britain came close to war when British troops in Sudan discovered that a French force was claiming the Sudan for France.

1899 - 1902 Boer War Fought by the British against the Boers, this war demonstrated how alone Britain had become. No European power was willing to help the British in any way.

1904/5 Russo-Japanese War Russia was humiliated by defeat on the land and on the sea by the relatively unknown power of Japan. Riots and strikes in Russia were one other result of this humiliation.

1904 Entente Cordiale The Francophile King Edward VII visited France and helped pave the way for a warming of relations between France and Britain.

1905 First Moroccan Crisis Rioting in Casablance killed some Europeans. When the French respond to these attacks by using French soldiers, Wilhelm demands that if France takes Morocco as a colony, Germany should also receive a similar sized colony.

1907 Triple Entente France managed to get Britain and Russia to bury their differences with one another - most notably over India. Britain agrees to back France's claim to Morocco, and France agrees to back Britain's claim to Egypt.

1911 - Libya Italy invaded Libya and took it from the Ottomans.

1911 - Second Moroccan Crisis The Germans sent a small gunboat, the Panther, to the small Moroccan port of Agadir to protect its citizens which it said were still being attacked. They are also concerned about French troop deployments in the region. The French asked for British support which was received. The Germans asked for compensation for leaving. No compensation was granted.

1912 - First Balkan War Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro attacked Turkey to try and gain territory and independence.

1913 - Second Balkan War The Balkan powers fell out over their gains from Turkey. Greece, Serbia, Turkey and Romania fight against Bulgaria who they thought had been too greedy.

Other Factors
Colonial Rivalry. The world view of economics at this time thought that the industrial countries needed colonies to gain raw materials for its industries and then to act as markets to sell them in. They thought that it was good to have lots of colonies producing a variety of raw materials.

Arms Race As the European nations had industrialised so much in the late Nineteenth Century, it was becoming easier to produce the weapons of war. Troops could be armed with better rifles and more modern machine guns. Ships were becoming larger and more powerful. The British Dreadnought Battleship built in 1906 redefined the power of the Navy.

Education and the Press Many European nations had begun to educate their people during the Nineteenth Century. However, this education was very limited. It usually concerned reading, writing, some mathematics and some religion. It meant that many working class people could now read the popular tabloid newspapers that were being produced. Often, these newspapers were fiercely patriotic and did little to explain different points of opinion

Religion Most established churches were happy to say that God was on their side. The clergy were often very patriotic themselves and thought that it was fine to fight against those who were not following the true Christian path.

Patriotism This was a period when very few ideas reached people from other countries, cultures and points of view. Most of the press was owned by the elite of the same nationality. This was also the era of Social Darwinism when it was common to think that weak nations would lose out to stronger nations.

The Balkans The Balkans was a real problem area. There had been so many invasions, empires and wars in the area that it was difficult to figure out what belonged to what group. In a period of increasing national awareness, the fragmented nature of the Balkans was becoming a more and more serious problem. Most diplomats agreed that there was little chance of pleasing all the peoples of the Balkans.

The Assassination
The trigger that caused all of the tensions, treaties and alliances to come in to effect was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Serbia on June 28th, 1914. His assassination by Gavrilo Princip was actually a real sorry comedy of errors. Apart from the appalling timing of the Archduke arriving in the Serb city on the Serbian National Day, the assassination was a very amateur affair. After bungling the initial attempt on his life, Gavrilo Princip was walking home when the Archduke's driver took a wrong turn and drove straight by the Bosnian Serb nationalist.

Remarkably, little happened for the next month, the assassination was not a sudden trigger which started the war. Rather, it was a catalyst itself which set in motion a chain of events that resulted in World War One. Most Austro-Hungarians assumed that the Serbian authorities were involved in some way and so popular opinion was in favour of an immediate invasion. The Austro-Hungarians were further encouraged when they received a 'blank cheque' from Kaiser Wilhelm II who said that Germany would stand by Austria through thick and thin. The main problem for the Austrians was that the Russians felt very close to their fellow Orthodox Christian Serbian neighbours. However, the Austrians were confident that they could defeat Serbia before a Russian army could be mobilised. On July 23rd the Austro-Hungarian Government delivered an ultimatum with fifteen strict demands on the Serbians. It was designed to be rejected.

Surprisingly, the Serbs agreed to fourteen of the fifteen demands and asked that that last demand go to international arbitration. However, this was not good enough for the Austro-Hungarians who were being encouraged by the Germans. The Russians, Serbians, Austrians and Germans were all mobilising their forces in anticipation of war. On July 28th, the Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia. The various treaties and alliances would unintentionally bring all the major European nations into a war with each other. Austria invaded Serbia. Serbia was backed by Russia. Germany backed Austria. Russia was backed by France. The German plan to defeat Russia included going to war with France first. To invade France, the Germans had to go through Belgium. Britain had an agreement with France and Belgium. This chain reaction resulted in the most cataclysmic war that the world had ever seen.

King Albert and George V
King George V and King Albert Inspect Belgian troops
Heads of State and Principal Actors
Worksheets Available
Timeline Gapfill
Student Work
Examples of Pieces of Work
Learning Tasks
Central Powers Exercise
Allied Powers Exercise
The Stakes Exercise
Causes Crossword
Who was who Exercise
The Kaiser
Attitudes to War
1839 Britain signs a pact that guarantees Belgium
1870/71 Prussia defeats France in the Franco-Prussian War
1879 Germany and Austria sign Dual Alliance
1882 Italy joins Germany and Austria to form Triple Alliance
1887 Germany signs Russian Reinsurance Treaty
1888 Wilhelm II becomes Kaiser of Germany
1890 Bismarck is dismissed by Wilhelm II
Germany refuses to renew Russian Reinsurance Treaty
1892 Franco-Russian Alliance is formed
1896 Dreyfus Affair reveals corruption in French army
Italians defeated by Ethiopian army at Adowa
1898 Germany starts building ships under The Tirpitz Plan
1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance formed
1904 Britain signs Entente-Cordiale with France
1904/5 Russia defeated by Japanese in Manchuria and Korea
1906 Pig War between Serbia and Austria-Hungary
1907 Britain and Russia agree their differences. Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia. First Moroccan crisis
1908 Daily Telegraph Affair.
1910 Edward VII dies, George V becomes King
1911 Second Moroccan Crisis
1912 Strikes and violence in Russia
1913 France extends conscription to three years
June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand assassinated in Sarajevo.
July, 1914 Austrian ultimatum to Serbs
July, 1914 Serbians refuse ultimatum
July, 1914 Russia mobilises to help Serbs
August, 1914 Germany mobilises because Russia is
August, 1914 France mobilises because Germany is
August, 1914 Schlieffen Plan operated by Germans
August, 1914 Germany invades Belgium. Britain declares war on Germany
Online Resources
The Origins of World War I
This is a BBC article on the origins of the Great War.
The Causes of the First World War
This thorough article actually traces the events in reverse order.
The Willy-Nicky Telegrams
These are the original telegrams sent between the Kaiser and the Tsar at the outbreak of the war.
Assassination in Sarajevo
Read an account of the assassination that started The Great War.
The Outbreak of War
Read biographies of the people involved and complete some online lessons
World War I Links
There are hundreds of sites for you to explore on many aspects of the War.
Trenches on the Web
This is a thorough site that covers many aspects of life in the trenches
Resources Available in School
Dorling Kindersley CD-ROM
Chronicle of the Twentieth Century
You can find more about WWI on this CD-ROM
Resources Available
1914-1918 Total War
Judi Dench narrates the history of the Great War
Focus CD-ROM
World War I
This CD-ROM is packed with maps, pictures, text and footage
Reference Books
Joll, James
The Origins of the First World War
Henig, Ruth
The Origins of the First World War
Martel, Gordon
The Origins of the First World War
Email Discussion Groups
1WW at Yahoogroups
Get involved with email discussions about the Great War.

WorldWar1 at Yahoogroups
This list is a little quieter

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by Stephen Luscombe