The Road to War – First World War

The 28th July 2014 will mark the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, I think it’s only appropriate that this blog’s first post should therefore be on that topic. And so the best place to start is exploring the chaotic path that Europe took towards war in 1914.

Most know that the First World War started because of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, but for such a large conflict, there are obviously other events that are significant. It can be difficult to try and determine an earliest date for a cause or significant event, I think the best place to start is the unification and formation of a country that has influenced the continent of Europe and the world to an enormous extent ever since it was created in 1871.

The German Empire is proclaimed: Unification of Germany 1871

A country born out of war with France, the north German confederation joined to become the German Empire, under the rule of the Prussian king Kaiser Wilhelm I and the watchful eye of the famous chancellor Otto Von Bismarck. The German victory over France was pivotal as the new nation emerged as one of the most powerful in the world, with certainly the best trained army and an economy that was second only to the USA. The German seizure of Alsace Loraine from France after the war certainly gave France reason for wanting revenge. It was inevitable that at some stage the 2 nations that dominated western and central Europe would come to a head, it was only a question of when…

France and Russia : Franco – Russian Alliance 1894

The lines begin to be drawn as France and Russia sign a purely military alliance of mutual assistance if the other is attacked. It came about as a response to the triple Alliance being formed between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy which left Russia isolated and in need of friends on the continent. The military alliance was perfect for France who had been isolated by Germany in Europe since 1871. For the Russians it gave them a strong ally on the continent to counter growing German power. Another positive was the geographical position of the two powers as they now encircled Germany forcing her to consider a possible war on two fronts.

The Balkans begin to heat up: assassination of Serbian King 11 June 1903

The assassination of King Alexander Obrenović I of Serbia and his wife by the Black Hand

The soon to be famous ‘Black Hand’, a Serbian terrorist organisation with strong ties to the Serbian military, assassinate the largely unpopular Serbian King Alexander Obrenović  I of Serbia and his wife in what is known as the ‘May overthrow’. The Serbian throne was passed from the Austro-Hungarian supported Obrenović royal family to the Karađorđević family which had strong ties to Russia and France. Most importantly it marked a significant shift for Serbian relations in Europe.

Britain and France put aside their rivalry: Entente Cordiale signed 8 April 1904

After nearly a thousand years of intermittent conflict, the two rival nations come together to sign a series of agreements. Most importantly for the two powers were agreements on colonial matters which had driven the rivalry of the two nations for many years. But significant to future developments, it made clear that Britain would be on the side of France in any future conflict. Britain was afraid of growing German aggressiveness in Europe and so it presented an advantage for Britain as they were able to achieve a strong ally on the continent.

Russia gets a bloody nose in the East: Russo-Japanese War 5 September 1904

Japanese fleet on its way to intercept the Russian Baltic fleet.

The war was fought mainly over the desired expansion of Russia and Japan into Korea, the Japanese though stunned the world with its mastery of European style warfare and inflicted a series of defeats on Russia. For the Russians, defeat on the battlefield and revolution at home had damaged her ability to continue and so a peace was signed. More importantly though, this ended Russian ambitions in the east and turned her attention solely to the West and the Balkans.

Austria-Hungary steps further into the Balkans: annexation of Bosnia 5 October 1908

Illustration showing the Austro-Hungarian emperor taking Bosnia, the Bulgarian prince taking Bulgaria as it declares its independence and the Ottoman Sultan looking on helplessly

Russian and Austrian aims in the Balkans had often caused disagreements between the two powers. Russia had supported Slav independence, however Austria was trying hard to suppress any waves of independence that could threaten the provinces of her own empire. In a bid to expand its borders, the Austrians wanted to annex the area of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russia was willing to accept the move but only if the Austrians were to give their support should Russia make claims on the straits of Constantinople which was vital to Russian exports of grain. An agreement was reached but somewhere along the line the two nations had misunderstood each other.

The annexation followed causing shock for many nations, including Serbia who mobilised its army and demanded an Austrian withdrawal or compensation. Germany stood by the move and talks between the nations took place which managed to get to a peaceful conclusion of accepting the Austrian move. Russia continued to protest, but they soon backed down when Austria released secret documents which showed past agreements where Russia had agreed to Austrian action in the Balkans. The documents were embarrassing for the Russians and their reputation in the Balkans was severely damaged. Whilst they recognised they were too weak to fight at that time, they decided that they would not back down a second time when another issue in the Balkans erupted.

The Balkans take on the Ottomans: The First Balkan War October 1912

Defeated Ottoman Soldiers after the war

The first Balkan war pitted the Balkan league, made up of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro against the Ottoman Empire. The war was a tremendous success for the Balkan League who forced the Ottomans to give up large portions of land that they held in the Balkans. A conference in London of all the great powers were able to reach a peace agreement where large areas of Ottoman territory was handed to the Balkan league. Austria was fearful of growing Serbian power and was able to block Serbian access to a port along the Adriatic by pushing for the creation of an independent Albanian state. Serbian and Greek troops reluctantly withdrew from Albania, whilst Bulgaria began to feel as though she deserved more than she had gotten. Another war was brewing.

The Balkan League fight among themselves : The Second Balkan War 29 June 1913

The great powers of Europe in fear of the Balkans erupting

Roughly one month after the First Balkan war ending, the Balkans once again erupted with Bulgaria attacking its former allies Serbia and Greece. Bulgaria had not timed their move well as Romania declared war and invaded from the north, whilst the Ottomans saw an opportunity to get back some losses and invaded from the south. Bulgaria hastily asked for an armistice. The result was not good for Bulgaria, large portions of its territory was shared among the Serbians, Greeks, Ottomans and Romanians. Most significantly, Serbia just about doubled her territory and gained a much larger population. Serbia had now become an even bigger threat to Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans. They enjoyed full support from Russia and Serbian confidence had soared due to its recent success. But Serbia had still not forgotten their loss of Albanian territory due to Austria-Hungary’s insistence, so had a reason to feel aggrieved.

And so the stage was set. Small wars and disagreements had erupted which showed who would fight who when the time came. Russia was firmly backing Serbia as she tried to expand her influence in the Balkans. Austria Hungary wanted to squash Serbia and the independence movement that threatened her provinces, whilst Germany stood firmly behind the Habsburgs. Britain and France were understandably concerned over the growing problems from the Balkans and stood behind Russia, but not unconditionally.

Germany, whilst not being directly involved in the Balkans, was the nation that was going to cause a war. Whilst they did not necessarily want a world war, they were prepared to risk a conflict with Russia whilst they still held the advantage in military terms. Britain and France would not have necessarily gotten involved, but due to the importance placed on the ‘Schlieffen Plan’ in Germany, war in the West was inevitable. Germany would not risk a war in the East with the potential of an enemy in the west as well and so the defeat of France was given paramount importance in the event of war with Russia. It just so happened that the Schlieffen Plan called for an invasion through Belgium, guaranteeing Britain’s involvement and therefore turning it into a world war.

Whilst Europe was poised for war, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph instructed the heir to the throne, Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, to go to the new territory of Bosnia to observe military manoeuvres that would be taking place there in June 1914. It was a visit that would have catastrophic consequences…

Written by Jonny Morris

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