How the First World War started

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria assassinated on 28 June, 1914. This among other contributing factors was the result of the start of the First World War

The First World War started because of many different political factors. It is generally agreed that these factors, far too complex for this particular study, were the catalysts for war. However, the First World War didn't start because of a singular event seen in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke and heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, it goes much further back than that. The First World War was the result of a knock-on effect of events stretching as far back as 1886 with cascading failures in diplomacy.[1] These are the causal events that would eventually unfold and hail a maelstrom that would throw many countries into turmoil resulting in the deaths of millions of lives.

There are common beliefs about who was fighting who, and for what reasons. Essentially there were several alliances among the European powers. These were formed of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy and Russia, France and Britain. Germany and Austria-Hungary had already formed what was called the Dual Alliance in the latter part of the nineteenth century, which gave them superior strength in Central Europe, far outweighing that of anything seen previously. Later on Italy joined the alliance shortly after the turn of the century, which then became known as the Triple Alliance; however, Italy did not take part in the war of 1914. The Triple Alliance was a formidable force. Russia and France followed suit and too formed their own alliance, thirteen years after Austria-Hungary and Germany. This became known as the Dual Entente. It wasn’t until 1907 that Britain joined this opposing alliance to form the Triple Entente and from there on it was clear that whilst the alliances gave a sense of security, they also had a downside. Local disputes within the alliances could essentially draw in other powers of the same alliance, one country backing another, thus creating the formation of full-scale war.

This was something not to be taken lightly. With such formidable forces within the Triple Alliance and Entente, declarations of war would be costly to their respective nations both in finances and lives. Avoiding this would, at all costs, be paramount yet this was not to be the case. There had been difficult histories between the powers, which had increased over time when in 1914 everything change with the assassination of the Archduke and heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. This single event spiralled out of control and was the main vehicle that drove the Alliances to full-scale war.

The assassination took place on 28 June, 1914 in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, by Serbian terrorists. Austria-Hungary hastily placed blame on the Serbian Government believing them to be directly involved, therefore, declaring war with Serbia on the 31st July. The terrorist actions, however, had no connection to the Serbian Government. It was at this point that the knock-on effect came into play. Russia began to partially mobilise her army on the 29th July in preparation for the Austria-Hungarian advance on Serbia; by the 31st Russia had full mobilisation of her forces. Russia attacking Austria-Hungary meant that Germany and France would be pulled into the war. It has been discussed that the war could have been prevented if Britain could have held back Germany from helping Austria-Hungary. Working with the Triple Alliance, Germany decided to help Austria-Hungary and as a result declared war on Russia on the 1st August and France on the 3rd.

Britain’s involvement did not necessarily need to be a high concern at that juncture. Separated from mainland Europe, Britain has had an additional sense of security but even with such an imposing naval force to guard her waters, German interest at Belgian ports posed a real threat. Britain has always protected her trade routes to India where much of her additional strength was evident by way of Indian troops helping to control the Empire. Britain can hardly be absolved on the imperialistic front but in protecting her trade routes with India, the rest of the world and the waters that surrounded her ensured that she remained self sufficient and a dominant force. There were, however, other complications between the countries of Triple Entente, mainly in the form of land disputes in North Africa. Britain and France had strong rivalries because of this and Russia, wanting to control the Dardanelles, which was owned by Turkey, caused problems mainly because Turkey and Russia had been long-time enemies. Yet Britain essentially supported Turkey on the grounds that she did not want Russian war ships in the Mediterranean as this was an important trade route between Britain and India. Britain, did however, maintain a keen interest in Europe showing more concern with France and Russian instead of Germany. This was understandable because relations between the two nations were strong and had been for some time. Germany, by then, was a nation stuck between two others, France to the west and Russia to the east. This was great concern for Kaiser Wilhelm II who firmly believed that Germany should be the Great Power of Central Europe and as a result built up his armies to a fearsome level, far greater than in Britain. France and Russia realised this and followed suit, building up both armies and navies.

Before the war started, Britain had projected that no one country throughout Europe should become more dominant to the point of total control and supremacy over the others. By 1907 Germany was clearly standing out among the rest as a potential threat for this scenario. She had a large population, a strong economy and a growing armed force more powerful that it had ever been in the past and this alone seemed that she was far more capable of European domination than any other counterpart. Because of this Britain joined France and Russia in the Entente possibly in the hope to even out the power that had accumulated over the years in combined forces.

It appears unusual that Britain did not initially have to going to war in 1914. With German troops invading Belgium and strong points so close to the British coast, this alone would have made the British Government nervous. But Britain did have an obligation to defend Belgium under the Treaty of London of 1839 and the German Government knew this even when invaliding Belgian soil. They were taking a risk. Britain could not, and did not, turn a blind eye to this treaty as the German Government had hoped and as a result, with the Schlieffen Plan under way, the invasion of France through Belgium was enough for Britain to declare war on Germany on 4 August, 1914. The war had just started for Britain and it was a war that she would never forget.

A few days later the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary were officially at war with the Allies of Britain, France and Russia. What had initially started out as localised problem had soon spiralled out of control and was turning into the bloodiest, most brutal war in the history of the world.

References / notes

  1. When Diplomacy Fails is a podcast that covers many different wars in detail and, in the words of the author, Zack Twamley, "looks at the build-up to, break out of and consequences of wars throughout history." For this subject the author completed well-researched nine episode podcast on the First World War and it is this that explores in great detail the failures in diplomacy and how the First World War started.
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