Schlieffen Plan
[First World War, background, origins]
Triple Entente, Triple Alliance

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The First World War
background and origins



The First World War period can be said to have been one of the most traumatic to have ever been experienced by the peoples of Europe and the World.

Some idea of the extreme dislocation and disillusion brought down upon people's lives, particularly the lives of the younger generation that had to directly face the various tragedies associated with the conflict, can be gained from reading Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth."
Other highly relevant books being "The Guns of August" by Barbara Tuchman, "Good Soldier Schweik" by Hašek and "All Quiet on the Western Front" by Erich Maria Remarque.

If the First World War had not happened then it is very likely that the Russian Revolution would not have happened in the way it did or when it did. It is yet more likely that Fascism (which was itself in large part a reaction to a perceived threat of Bolshevisation against a background of deep discontent with the nature of the Peace Settlements) would not have managed to take hold in several European states.

Thus this War undeniably represents a critically defining watershed in European and World history.

Several pages of this Web site are about Comparative Religion and tend to show that there is a God with whom sincerely spiritual people may hope to "Mystically Commune."
The very emergence of such an internationally impacting collective tragedy as the First World War is, in many peoples' estimation, a cogent cause of questioning about the Existence, the Nature, and the Powers, of God.

Other pages of this Web site investigate the connections between "Spirituality and the Wider World" - and tend to suggest that people, as individuals and as members of groups, are motivated by Desire - Materialism, by Ethnicity - Wrath, by the claims of Reason, as well as by Spirituality - Wisdom.
If people were wholly spiritual in their nature it may be that Wars would be a great deal less likely!!!

Perhaps the most optimistic good that is open to being won out of the grim reality of any War can gained from a dispassionate assessment of its causes such that important insights can be arrived at into individual and mass motivations. Insights that that could - potentially - allow for a more enlightened pursuit of policies, by persons of goodwill, which would tend to be less likely to precipitate conflicts in the future.

What follows is intended as such a fairly dispassionate assessment of Europe's gradual descent into a what became a truly ghastly abyss of mutual destructiveness after August 1914.

  The outcome of the Wars of German Unification considerably altered the European political scene. Prussia's defeat of Austria in a "Seven Weeks War" of 1866 led to that Empire being excluded from German affairs and being reconstituted as an Austro-Hungarian "Dual Monarchy". France deplored the seizure of Alsace-Lorraine (now renamed Reichsland) by Germany.

In November 1871 the French politician Leon Gambetta, speaking of Alsace and Lorraine enjoyed a certain celebrity for saying "Let us not speak of our lost territiory, but let it be understood that we think of it all the time."
Certain statues in the Place de la Concorde that were associated with these provinces were draped in black as a token of national mourning.

During these times Bismarck strove to diplomatically isolate France denying her the opportunity of winning back these "lost" provinces as an outcome of another war. Aside from this limitation on alliances that might threaten Imperial Germany Bismarck hoped that France would progress and be reconciled and was prone to encourage her to direct her energies towards extending sway over parts of North Africa.

  The German Empire's establishment inherently presented Europe with the reality of a populous and industrialising polity possessing a considerable, and undeniably increasing, economic and diplomatic presence.

  Support for Socialist and Communist political movements continued and expanded. In Germany in 1869 the gradualist "Lassallian" socialists, who had a track record of concerning themselves with the development of worker's co-operatives agreed to join with other traditionally more revolutionary movements. The resulting Socialist Labour Party endorsed a "Gotha Programme" in 1875 which was criticised by Marx but remained as the charter of German socialism until the adoption of the more truly Marxist Erfurt Programme in 1891.

  In Britain meanwhile Socialism had developed in an atmosphere of relative economic buoyancy and political liberty where skilled worker's Trades Unions tended to seek to control the admission of persons to skilled trades, to seek to improve working conditions, and to provide sickness and unemployment benefits for their members. This skilled trades unionism tended to see advantage in working broadly with rather than directly against employers. After an economic crisis of 1879 produced seemingly endemic unemployment there was some support for a more insistent Socialism and unskilled workers trades unions developed.

  In France the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War featured a suppression of a "Paris Commune", and Socialism, by the French authorities in 1871 with many thousands being killed, exiled, or imprisoned. This suppression proved even more expensive of life and limb than the "June Days" of 1848. As Socialism recovered in France it also featured a rivalry between gradualist and revolutionary approaches to change.

  The economic crisis of 1879 was related to an intensification of international trading competition. Following on from the example set by a colonialism supported by the Belgian King, as a private venture, in the Congo after 1876 the colonisation of distant parts of the globe was increasingly seen by European governments as being of value in the securing of raw materials and of markets. A scramble for colonies in Africa and elsewhere ensued.

  In 1875 French politics, influenced by the recent reverse suffered at the hands of Prusso-Germany moved towards support for re-armament. Bismarck caused the German press to speculate about the likelihood of another war. Russia and Britain put pressure on the German Empire in support of France whilst Austro-Hungary kept her own council.

  In 1875 sections of the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina rose in opposition to the Ottoman Empire. Before many months had passed much of the Balkans were in revolt against the Ottoman power. In April 1877 the Russian Empire declared war on the Ottoman Empire and it seemed as if the Ottoman Empire in Europe might fall. This conflict was halted by a Treaty of San Stefano between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. It happened that this Treaty contained provisions that several western powers found unacceptable and the situation was placed before a Congress held in Berlin in 1878 at the invitation of Bismarck who offered to try to serve as an honest broker. The fact of this Congress being held in Berlin was an inherent acknowledgement of how prominent the newly established German Empire was in European "Balance of Power" considerations. Although Bismarck offered to serve as an honest broker Prussian policy had as one of its foremost objectives the continuance in being of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. This objective being based on such considerations as the German parts of Austro-Hungary seeking to be incorporated in a "Greater German" state which might prove less governable, in the broad interest of the Prussian tradition, than the Imperial Germany of post-1871. Those Slav lands which would inevitably become available to other geo-political arrangements if Austro-Hungary fell apart might well also function less amenably to the interests of Imperial Germany outside the Austro-Hungarian structure.

  The Congress of Berlin proved to be something of a watershed in European diplomacy. Russia was confirmed as having lost many of the gains she seemed to have made by the Treaty of San Stefano and was somewhat aggrieved. Austro-Hungary was allowed to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina but these territories were nonetheless still deemed to be Ottoman territory. Austria did not really welcome this occupation of what would probably prove to be restive Slav territories but from the point of view of the continuance in being of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy it was deemed preferable to their becoming available to annexation to a would-be Slav national state. Serbia, Montenegro and Rumania gained in independence from the Ottoman Empire.

  After 1878 Europe was to experience an unprecedented thirty six years where significant wars between states did not occur. There was however a complex, and continually adapting, web of diplomacy as states sought to ally to better preserve and strengthen their position internationally with the assistance of allies of the time. International affairs were, and are, vexed by considerations of looking out for the self-interest of the state in an unstable world and the consequent necessity of attempting to achieve situations consistent with the security and strength of the state. During the years of relative peace 1879-1914 there were many such International Treaty arrangements, only some of these will be specifically mentioned in the following sections.

  Bismarck was aware that the outcome of the Congress of Berlin had tended to alienate Russia and entered into alliance with Austro-Hungary in 1879. This secret alliance assured both parties of the others support if attacked by Russia. Bismarck, however, would appear not to have entered into this Treaty as an anti-Russian measure as such. It was of the first importance to Imperial Germany that the Austro-Hungarian "Monarchy" remained viable. By entering into this alliance, which seemed to offer the Monarchy much in the way of security, Bismarck hoped to limit diplomatic policy options of the Monarchy. By virtue of this limitation The Monarchy would not be available for alliance with Britain or France, also any tendency by the Monarchy towards the adoption of actively anti-Russian policies could be restrained.

  In 1882 Italy, discomfited by French expansion into North Africa, entered into a Triple Alliance with the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. This alliance promised German and Austro-Hungarian support to Italy if she were attacked by France, promised Italian support to Germany if she were attacked by France, and provided for Italian neutrality in the event of an Austro-Russian war. This adherence of Italy was not so much prompted by an actual fear of French attack as by the Italian Kingdom's need for reassurance that it would have friends internationally who were capable of assisting should Italian Republicans threaten the continuance of Italy as a Kingdom. The kudos, and recognition, inherent in being involved in international diplomacy with powerful partners helped to validate the Italian Kingdom.

  A "Reinsurance Treaty" between the German and Russian Empires provided for the neutrality of one Empire if the other was involved in a war. There were exception clauses that operated however if Russia attacked Austro-Hungary or Germany attacked France.

  The German Kaiser Wilhelm I died in 1888 and was succeeded by a son, Freidrich Wilhelm, who had recognised liberal leanings but who was also fatally ill and as a result only held the Imperial throne for ninety-nine days. There was then another succession by which the somewhat wilful and erratic Wilhelm II came to the throne of Imperial Germany at the age of twenty nine.

  It was not long after gaining the throne that the incoming Kaiser and his inherited Reichskanzler (Imperial Chancellor) Bismarck had a battle of wills and the new Kaiser made it plain to Bismarck that he should think about retiring. The particular battle of wills had been about Bismarck's wish to undertake measures to combat the ever increasing strength of the Social Democrats. The new Kaiser, however, hoped to win over the Social Democrats through conciliation.

  The foreign policy followed under the new men in charge in the Imperial German foreign office allowed the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia to lapse through not being renewed in the summer of 1890. The Tsar of all the Russias, and the French Republic, both in search of powerful allies reached an understanding which was formalised in 1891 in an Entente Cordiale which provided for consultation should there be a threat to peace. During an official French visit to the Russian naval port of Kronstat, the "Autocrat of the North" stood bareheaded whilst the Marsellaise , the "Anthem of the Revolution" was played in his honour. Some discussions took place subsequently between the French and the Russian military authorities and culminated in the secret formal acceptance of arrangements whereby each undertook to aid the other if attacked by Germany.

  In 1894, Japan, newly emergent as an industrialising society, became involved in a war with China. This conflict was intended by Japan to win Korea to her control. This control was thought necessary because Tsarist Russia was constructing a Trans-Siberian railway that offered to dramatically increase Russian sway in the Far East. Japan hoped that Korea, under its control would become a bulwark against future Russian power. French, Russian, and German, protests were prominent in causing Japan to hand back Korea and Port Arthur, a port on the Liaotung peninsula in Manchuria, recently won from China, to Chinese control.

  German industry had developed markedly and was posing a pressing challenge to that of Britain in many markets. Many in Britain had taken exception to the content of a telegram sent by Wilhelm II to President Kruger of the South African Republic in January 1896. This telegram, sent in congratulation after the so-called Jameson Raid into the Transvaal from British South Africa had been repulsed "without appealing to the help of friendly powers", seemed to imply that Germany might give support to the Republic of South Africa against the British interest in the future. It may be that this telegram was in fact styled to be slightly provocative and as such intended to persuade other powers with whom Germany was diplomatically negotiating that there was a lack of full sympathy between Britain and Germany. Many in Britain had at this time some increasing consciousness of the degree to which Germany was rivalling Britain in trade as well as in power. Hence the Jameson Telegram touched more sensitive nerves than had perhaps been intended.

  After 1897 Imperial Germany followed a Weltpolitik (World Policy) which sought to raise her profile in the world such that it was more consistent with her economic and industrial strength. Weltpolitik also had advantages in allowing domestic attention, and domestic support, to be diverted away from challenges the powerful Social Democratic interest were apt to make to the policies preferred by the German establishment.

  In 1898 Germany embarked on a build-up of her naval forces, this programme was substantially expanded after 1900 with the view of attaining a situation where the German fleet could be seen in association with the fleet of another power as representing a fleet greater than that of Britain. The British for their part had some years previously become seriously concerned lest their traditionally preponderant navy should be challenged by the combined forces of France and Russia and were following a policy which hoped to ensure that the British fleet was larger than the combined fleets of any two other powers.

  In 1898 the Russians moved into the Liaotung Peninsula and the naval base of Port Arthur which Japan had been denied after the war of 1894.

  Britain had for some time avoided involvement in formal alliance with powers in mainland Europe but this policy began to seem less tenable as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth. The British became more concerned about their security against possible coalitions of rivals. In 1902 the British adapted their "Two-power Standard" in naval forces into a "Three power Standard".

  In 1902 Britain sought to better secure her interests in the Pacific against possible Russian encroachment by entering into an alliance with Japan. The Japanese gained some reassurance from Britain that they would not have to face a Franco-Russian coalition alone in the Far East.

  There were mutual official visits by British and French heads of state in 1903. In 1904 some previous rivalries with France were settled to the point where an Anglo-French Entente was held to exist for purposes of consultation.

  Russian influence had recently been growing in Korea through the activities of persons who were ostensibly seeking to exploit timber resources there. In 1904-1905 Russia came to blows with Japan after intense rivalries had developed between these Empires in relation to their respective influence in Korea and Manchuria. This conflict irrupted on 8th February 1904 after Japanese forces made a surprise attack on Port Arthur. In the ensuing conflict Russia was obliged to rely on a single track railway across the vast expanse of Siberia to supply its forces in the Far East. Such shipments required unloading and reloading before and after a crossing of Siberia's Lake Baikal by ship. Port Arthur fell to the Japanese in January 1905. An attempt by Russia to retrieve the situation by sending its main fleet from the port of Kronstadt in the Gulf of Finland to the Far East met with disaster in a sea battle contested in the Tsushima Strait which separates Japan from Korea. In the event Japan prevailed and gained control of Korea and the Peninsula where Port Arthur was located. The reverses suffered in the war precipitated a more open expression of political discontent in Russia. Late in 1905 the Tsar was obliged to award a form of Constitution known as the October Manifesto. This Manifesto promised that there would be a Russian Duma or Parliament.

  On 31 March 1905 Wilhelm II, at this time of Russian weakness following the reverses suffered against Japan, indicated his support for Moroccan independence during a personal visit to the Moroccan port of Tangiers, this was potentially highly prejudicial to the interests of France as a colonial power in North Africa. An international Conference was held in southern Spain in January 1905 to discuss the situation of Morocco. Most of the participating countries offered France some support at this time whilst Germany found herself with only Austro-Hungary, and Morocco, on her side of the argument by March 1905 when the conference reached its final positions. This Moroccan crisis induced the Anglo-French Entente to develop a more overtly military dimension. From the time of crisis Britain became persuaded that her own security considerations compelled her to take a more serious interest in the "Balance of Power" on continental Europe.

  France had individual understandings with both Russia and Britain and attempted to promote a better understanding between Russia and Britain. The reverse suffered by Russia in 1904-1905 allowed Britain to view her less alarmingly as a strategic rival. Russia for her part saw advantage in achieving a less distant relationship with Britain as she hoped to inhibit alternative understandings between Britain and Germany as Germany was extending its influence into the Ottoman Empire and Persia. With Persian, Indian, and other areas of dispute resolved by negotiation the British, for their part, could view arrangement entered into with both France and Russia as conferring substantial assurances of security. A triple Entente between France, Russia and Britain was reached later in 1907.

  The naval arms competition took on new dimensions in 1906 with the launching by Britain of a radically more powerful class of warship which they called the Dreadnought. Previously formidable warships stood no chance against a Dreadnought class ship and if Britain wished to maintain the Three-power Standard in the future it would effectively have to be computed in terms of Dreadnought class ships which were vastly expensive to construct. Germany began to build a number of Dreadnought class ships soon thereafter.

 At an International Socialist Congress held in Stuttgart in August 1907 Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Julius Martov were the moving spirits behind the adoption of an anti-war resolution.

"If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives...to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective...In case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination, and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist rule."
Balkan nationalism had been largely quiescent in the earlier years of the century but had become more evident as the years passed by partly in reaction to administrative and linguistic policies followed in the Hungarian sphere of Austria-Hungary. In 1907 there had been an extension of the official usage of the Magyar tongue on the Hungarian railways into Croatia and also an adoption of a policy which supported an extension of the required use of Magyar even into privately run educational establishments in Croatia. The Hungarian aspect of "Austria-Hungary" was motivated to pursue such policies by a desire to develop their orbit of influence as a predominantly Magyar cultural and linguistic area. The Hungarian aspect of "Austria-Hungary" was also constitutionally powerful enough within the Dual Monarchy to pursue such policies without the full support of Vienna. As a result some in Croatia looked to the small independent Kingdom of Serbia as a possible "Piedmont of the South Slavs" - as the nucleus of a future state which would be culturally accommodating rather than oppressive.

  In 1908 the Ottoman Empire was riven by a "Young Turk" rebellion that aimed at establishing Constitutional government. In these confused times Bulgaria moved to claim independence from the Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungary decided to lay claim to Bosnia-Herzegovina in full sovereignty. This Austro-Hungarian move, which had seemed to be approved of by the Russian foreign minister in return for Austria's support for revision of the agreement on the neutrality of the Bosporus and Dardanelles waterway (a change that would give Russia important navigational rights of passage), was prompted by concern over a possible future challenge to their role as administrators of the heretofore nominally Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina by a potentially revitalised Ottoman government led by "Young Turks."
  Serbia and Russia, after the Russian foreign minister's policy was disowned by the Tsar amidst international complications over the projected deal, protested this Austrian seizure of territories which south-slav nationalism viewed as being potentially part of a south-slav state based on Serbia. Imperial Germany had by this time come to see itself as being surrounded by an "Entente" of hostile powers - France, Russia and the United Kingdom. It might be suggested that certain of Germany's recent foreign and naval policies had, in fact, elicited this Entente as a "defensive coalition". This current crisis over Bosnia could be played out in several ways - if Germany had encouraged mediation this could have lowered the diplomatic tensions in Europe. Kaiser Wilhelm II, however, made it plain that Germany was standing beside Austro-Hungary "as a knight in shining armour". Russia still had not recovered from the stresses of the Russo-Japanese war, or had time to make good deficiencies revealed during its contestation and reluctantly backed down. Tsarist Russia felt somewhat humiliated and from these times a substantial build up of the Russian armed forces was put in train.

After Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia policy became involved with the scenario of increased tension and conflict in the Balkans. In 1912 Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro defeated the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, but the putative allies continued to quarrel among themselves. Then in 1913, the alliance split, and the Serbs, Greeks, and Romanians defeated Bulgaria in the Second Balkan War. Austria-Hungary became the patron of Bulgaria, which now was Serbia's territorial rival in the region, and Germany remained the Ottoman Empire's protector. Russia tied itself more closely to Serbia than it had previously. The complex system of alliances and Great Power support was extremely unstable; the several Balkan states tended to harbour resentments over past defeats, the Serbs maintained a particular animosity toward the Austro-Hungarians because of their annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

  Following on from two Balkan Wars in 1913 there were a number of territorial changes including the establishment of an Albanian state. Albania was called into existence to some extent at the behest of the Hungarians in order to deny Serbia a direct access to the Sea. (Since 1867 and a critical reverse suffered at the hands of the Prussians the former Austrian Empire had been restructed as an Austro-Hungarian "Dual Monarchy" wherein important policy matters could be heavily influenced by the perceived requirements of the Kingdom of Hungary as a locally politically competent power within this "Imperial and Royal Dual State".) The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the thrones of Austro-Hungary hoped to guide the Dual Monarchy towards becoming something of a federation of states under the overall constitutional sovereignty of the Habsburgs and was disconcerted by the tendency of the Hungarian Kingdom to sponsor pressing limitations on the national self-expression of the numerous Slav peoples who were politically within the orbit of the Hungarian aspect of the Dual Monarchy.

Austro-Hungarian military maneuvers were arranged to take place in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the summer of 1914. Franz Ferdinand, who had been appointed as inspector of the Imperial and Royal forces, was assigned to the ceremonial duty of being present.

  The marriage between Franz Ferdinand and the Czech Countess Sophie Chotek was an undoubted love match but, in terms of noble rank, sufficiently unequal that it contravened the expectations of the Habsburg Imperial tradition. One of the consequences of this morganatic marriage was that their children would not be considered as heirs to Franz Ferdinand in the Imperial succession another was that in all court ceremonies Sophie was not allowed to feature prominently having to yield precedence to other ladies of what was held to be of more aristocratic descent.

  The Serbian government had heard rumours of a plot threatening Franz Ferdinand's life and had advised the Austro-Hungarian governor in Bosnia-Herzegovina against the visit of the Archduke to Sarajevo fearing for his safety but due to local rivalries between Habsburg officials this message was not impressed upon those responsible for the Archduke's safety in Sarajevo. The Archduke made a somewhat private visit to the city on the 26th June without incident.

The dynastic protocols associated with this present posting in this quasi military role in Bosnia-Herzegovina were such as to disallow for an equal joint appearance by Franz Ferdinand and his wife but Franz Ferdinand had sought permission of the Emperor Francis Joseph for Sophie to feature noticeably as a companion during this visit.
On the 28th of June - this day was actually the wedding anniversary of the Archducal couple - Franz Ferdinand went out of his way to give a prominent place to his wife by holding her parasol during their formal visit to Sarajevo.

It happened that the 28th of June was the anniversary of a fateful fourteenth century battle of Kosovo as a result of which the Serbs had lost independence to the Ottoman Turks, and had become recognised as the national day of Serbia. In the event the Archducal couple on their way to a ceremonial appearance at the Town Hall were subjected to an attempt on their lives, several persons were severely injured and Franz Ferdinand himself was slightly wounded. The visit was continued however and Franz Ferdinand made a speech that included a small section during which he expressed some conciliatory sentiments in Serbo-Croat. Upon leaving the Town Hall Franz Ferdinand insisted on visiting the persons injured in the earlier incident, on the way to the hospital it happened that their driver took a wrong turning and this led to their car, quite by chance, being brought to a halt within a short distance of the leader of those who intended to make an attempt on Franz Ferdinand's life that day. This person promptly pulled out a concealed pistol and fired two shots that proved to be fatal to both Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

The person who inflicted the fatal injuries was a teenager of Bosnian extraction named Gavrilo Princip who, although personally an anarchist, was guided by high ranking Serbian army officers who were also involved in the extreme Serbian nationalist "Black Hand" organisation towards acting in ways consistent with the ambitions of "south-slav" nationalism. It was probably the case that the motivations for this act, against a potential future ruler who was known to be prepared to faciltiate the emergence of something of a federal structure across the diverse territories over which he had seemed destined to act as sovereign figurehead, lay in a sense of persecution over limitations on "Greater Serbian" national aspiration such as the assumption of full sovereignty by Austro-Hungary over Bosnia-Herzegovina, the creation of Albania, and such as derived from policies of restrictions on the voting rights of Serbs and Croats and of only providing limited educational opportunities through Serbo-Croat that had been principally sponsored by the Hungarian aspect of the "Dual Monarchy".

The Austro-Hungarians in particular, and the international community in general, deplored the assassinations. On a personal level Archduke Franz Ferdinand was in fact not deeply lamented by his uncle the Austrian Emperor (who even uttered private sentiments that almost welcomed the Archduke's death given his matrimonial "misalliance"). Whilst some sort of actions by Austro-Hungary in response to the assassination of the heir to the throne would doubtless follow, and probably be supported up to a point by the international community, they were moreso to be based on considerations of preserving the state against south Slav nationalism than on a vengeful grief.

The Austrian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hotzendorf, had encouraged preventive punitive action being taken against Serbia even before the assassination - (the chief opponent to the pursuit of such a policy had, ironically, been Franz Ferdinand) - he now suggested that Germany would support such punitive action.

  On 6th July Kaiser Wilhelm II assured an Austro-Hungarian envoy, over lunch, of German support in whatever actions Austro-Hungary statesmen decided to pursue against Serbia, later that day the German Chancellor endorsed this assurance. Whilst Kaiser and Chancellor knew that Russia had supported Serbia in the past it is nonetheless likely that these assurances were given without serious expectation that they would make a serious European war possible or likely. Tsarist Russia had after all backed away from the abyss in 1908 at the time of the Bosnia-Herzegovina crisis. There was some reason to suppose that Russian statesmen were fearful of giving scope for domestic unrest, and perhaps even revolution, that might well be encouraged by the dislocations associated with a state of war. Some Russian allowance of freedom of action was also hoped for given the disgusting reality of the assassination of the heir to the Habsburg thrones.

  Shortly after the Archduke's funeral articles appeared in the Austrian press which explicitly stated, by way of the reported "confessions" of the captured perpetrators, that those involved in the assassination had been acting under the direction of the Serbian military and political authorities. By the 14th July the Austro-Hungarians decided on presenting Serbia with what was effectively an Ultimatum, (but which was cosmetically to be described as a Note or a Demarche) the wording of which was to be agreed with the German authorities, which would make demands for most sweeping concessions. The Austro-Hungarians delayed the presentation of the Note in order to conceal their intentions and to inhibit the French Premier and the Tsar from being able to discuss any looming situation at first hand during an imminent French official visit to St Petersburg. This delay also gave time to better allow the securing of that years harvest.

  The Austro-Hungarian Ultimatum to Serbia was not delivered until the 23rd July, it included accusations that Serbia had "tolerated the machinations of various societies and associations directed against the Monarchy". The Ultimatum contained ten demands to which Serbia was given forty-eight hours to reply. These demands, if met, would have seen the Serbian authorities taking steps to prevent expression of anti-Austro-Hungarian sentiment including the suppression of some newspapers, a revision of the way history was taught in schools, and recognition of an Austro-Hungarian right to itself make investigations and suppress "subversive movements" within Serbia. It is probable that Austro-Hungary intended that Serbia would find these demands too steep - in any case the Austrian Ambassador to Serbia had orders to find any Serbian response as being unsatisfactory!

In the event Serbia, after consultation with the Russians, agreed to fully comply with seven of the ten demands, sought some modification of the others, and suggested that the situation should be placed before international arbitration.

  On the 26th July there was a partial mobilisation of the forces of the Russian Empire on the frontier with Austro-Hungary.

  The German High Command, given that there was a recognised alliance between Russia and France had, in the 1890s adopted a so-called Schlieffen Plan which anticipated that, in order to secure the best chance of prevailing in a European War, the German army should initially endeavour to promptly overcome the French army in the West and then move to oppose the army of Tsarist Russia in the East.

  The Schlieffen Plan had been adapted in 1904 to include the advance upon France taking place across Belgian territory. France, at that time was considered to be the more formidable rival in terms of might but the truly vast expanse of Tsarist Russia rendered a swift resolution of a conflict there unlikely. Whilst a two-front war was arguably not in itself inevitable the German High Command had to consider it as a possibility. Possibility led to planning and to preparation, this German and Austro-Hungarian planning and preparation led to countermeasures being planned and prepared for by France and Russia.

  The French maintained a formidable defence along their common frontier with Germany. On 26th July the German authority resolved to demand a right of access from Belgium which would allow advancing German armies to emerge into France via Belgian territory thus by-passing the French defences which would cost much time and untold lives to attack directly.

  Austro-Hungary, unsurprisingly, considering its intention to humiliate Serbia and hence re-emphasise its determination to withstand Slav nationalism in general, decided that the Serbian response was unsatisfactory and declared war on Serbia on the 28th July. Europe diplomacy had been somewhat lulled by what had seemed to be Austro-Hungarian inaction after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. There had been no sense of crisis and, given these circumstances, this actual Declaration of War tended to be seen in other European states as being more blatant than the assassinations in Sarajevo.

  It transpired, however, that Russia did not behave in line with Austro-Hungarian and German expectations. The Tsarist Russian authority had reason to fear adverse domestic reaction if it did not show some support for Serbia and intended to demonstrate something of Russia's determination to preserve what it considered to be its interests, and the interests of its friends, in the Balkans. The Tsarist government was however unsure as to whether it should direct that show of determination against Austro-Hungary alone and vacillated between a mobilisation against Austro-Hungary only and a mobilisation against the German Empire as well. Mobilisations were very complex procedures planned in fine detail, mobilisations enacted against one power might well tie up resources that would be needed in mobilisation plans against other powers. Russian planning had long considered Imperial Germany and Austro-Hungary together to be possible future adversaries - to the extent that no plans existed for a mobilisation against Austro-Hungary alone.

In the event the eventual Russian mobilisation, against both the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the German Empire, was authorised on the 30th July. Later that day the German authorities required the Russians to promise, within a twelve hour deadline, both to halt their mobilisation, and to agree to unwind that mobilisation which had already taken place. In response the Russians insisted that their mobilisation was merely precautionary. The Germans, for their part, could not take the Russian mobilisation lightly because increased preparedness on the part of the formidable Russian armed forces would greatly limit both the German and the Austro-Hungarian army's effectiveness if an actual state of open conflict ensued.


  On the 31st July the ongoing Austro-Hungarian mobilisation that was directed against Serbia was adapted to being also directed against Russia. The same day the British Prime Minister attempted to get both Germany and France to undertake to respect Belgian neutrality. Whilst France did so Germany would give no such commitment.

  Whilst German diplomacy tried to restrain Austro-Hungarian diplomacy at the eleventh hour the German High Command for its part seemed to offer encouragement to that of Austro-Hungary.

  Austro-Hungary could well have experienced domestic disaffection if some substantial move had not been made against Serbia. Now one member of the "Triple Alliance" (Austro-Hungary) was effectively being squared up to by one member of the "Triple Entente" (Tsarist Russia). It may have been the case that the diplomatic and military arrangements that had grown up in the Europe of the day had virtually led to a situation where "mobilisation meant war" - a situation where if active hostilities "seemed inevitable" serious disadvantage might follow from allowing a looming adversary to develop their own mobilisation arrangements without taking sufficient counter measures.

German military decision-makers expected that in the near future the forces of France and Russia would be more formidable than they were in July 1914. Bearing in mind the size of the forces that would confront them in future years should the Franco-Russian alliance remain as a factor in international relations, and bearing in mind the active mobilisations taking place, the German authorities decided that in an immediate execution of the Schlieffen plan lay an acceptable option. Given that a state of war seemed to be imminent advantages that were perceived as being of critical importance were to be gained from swift execution of military mobilisation and deployment. Imperial Germany declared war on Imperial Russia, both Germany and France mobilised their armies on the 1st August.

  Whilst some French mobilisation had taken place France could not be said to have adopted the attitude of an aggressor - some care was in fact being taken by all sides that they themselves should not be seen in the eyes of the world as being an aggressor. Nevertheless the Schlieffen plan required that the military capacity of France, as a member of the Franco-Russian alliance, be tellingly reduced before the more massive forces, and vast spaces, of Tsarist Russia be determinedly engaged.

  On 2nd August the Germans formally demanded that the Belgians allow German forces to proceed across Belgian territory in an attack on France. On the morning of the 4th August German forces, numbering some one and a half million men, began to enter into Luxembourg and Belgium. Later that day both the Kaiser and the Chancellor made speeches in the Reichstag asserting that the emergent state of war had been effectively forced on Germany. It was in these circumstances that the German Social Democrats, then the most powerful Socialist party in Europe holding almost a third of the seats in the Reichstag, became the first of the European Socialist movements to overtly, if reluctantly, fall into line with loyalty to local power states by voting in favour of war credits rather than managing to uphold the International Socialist anti-war agreements. Of all the powers in Europe at that time the one for which the German Social Democrats had the most inherent antipathy was Tsarist Russia.

  As the German advance on France took place, without consent, through Belgium Britain, as a guarantor of Belgian neutrality, found cause also to enter the war. The British needed to retain close ties with Russia in order to better ensure co-operation where estrangement might compromise Britain's hold on her Imperial possessions in the East. British policy was also fearful of a possible German domination of the European continent. British statesmen may have felt some moral obligation to assist France as the Anglo-French military understandings of recent years had effectively left the north coast of France to be defended by Britain whilst the French navy concentrated in the Mediterranean. The British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, believed that British involvement would be largely a naval one that would not necessarily involve large scale casualties. On August 3 he had told the House of Commons that:- "For us with our powerful fleet ... if we are engaged in war, we shall suffer little more than we shall suffer if we stand aside."

  After August 1914 a German and Austro-Hungarian "Central Power" interest was militarily opposed by an "Allied Power" interest which included Russia, France, Britain, and several overseas British dominions. In the circumstances Italy was not bound to join the Central Powers in this conflict and issued a declaration of neutrality.
  Once battle had been joined in both Serbia and Belgium the situation began to take on an inherent and grisly dynamic as each bloc of powers was motivated to "secure victory / avoid defeat" in terms of their peceived interests of the time.

In all the countries involved many young men rushed to join the colours and the general opinion was that "it will all be over by Christmas". The several arrangements entered into by Socialist parties in Europe (such as a Europe wide general strike) that were aimed at preventing the slaughter of Socialist brothers in wars that were orchestrated by capitalists seemed to fall apart in a political climate where patriotic sentiment seemed to overwhelm notions of Socialist Brotherhood and Solidarity.

  Those "Leftist Progressives" who tried to hold a pacifist line found themselves isolated as there was an effective widespread declaration of "Civil Truce" within the several countries of Europe where most Socialists, although appalled by the onset of hostilities, nonetheless gave support to the more traditional holders of power within their own states in persuit of the effective defence of the state against its enemies.

The Schlieffen Plan had even had a accompanying timetable whereby it envisaged that certain specific objectives would be reached on each successive day over a posited six-week period that the plan gave over to the reduction of France. It happened however that the Belgians put up a very determined resistance in several key strongpoints, and dismantled their own railways, causing much disruption to the fulfillment of the Schlieffen Plan. A British Expeditionary Force was obliged to withdraw after being overwhelmed by the strength of the German armies but also caused further delay at a Battle of Mons of 23-26 August. As the Russians had, somewhat unexpectedly, advanced into German East Prussia fairly significant German forces were withdrawn from being available to the advance into France in order to be transferred east to meet the Russian challenge.

In early September as the German armies came within 80 kilometres of Paris, from where the French government itself had decided it was prudent to withdraw, there was a strategically theoretically inadvisable French counter-attack, culminating in the Battle of the Marne of 6-12 September where the French, with some British support, prevailed.

Thus the Schlieffen Plan, on which ALL depended from the German and Austro-Hungarian "Central Power" perspective, was not fulfilled - in a matter of weeks it had become clear that the Central Powers would probably be faced with a prolonged two-front war. The German armies withdrew some sixty kilometres to the north of the wide valley of the Aisne river where they could hope to construct a long-term defensive line in naturally advantageous terrain.

  Very widely across Europe and the Europeanised territories overseas young, and not quite so young men, were drafted away from what had usually been typical civilian lives and were subjected to periods of military training. they were then sent to engage in mortal combat against other young, and not so young men, who had been similary drafted and trained - but into other armies.
In the event the war that was to be "all be over by Christmas" widened into Wars that lasted for more than four years and brought gruelling periods of military service, involving in all too many cases injury or death, to a high proportion of the young men of Europe (and its wider Dominions, Colonies and other territories), and the Russias as well as impacting on the lives of very many young Americans in the later years of the conflict.
Within each of the states of Europe there was a tendency to de-humanise the emergent "enemy" as "unspeakable Huns", "insatiable Anglo-Saxon Imperialists", or "Tsarist Hordes".

  These Wars are known to History as The First World War of The Great War and have proved to be of decisive influence in defining the subsequent history of Europe and the World.

  Some of the ways in which The First World War proved to be defining in terms of subsequent political and diplomatic developments are outlined on our The Diplomacy of the First World War page.




Emerson's "Transcendental" approach to History
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Spirituality & the wider world
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Some Social Theory and insights
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The Unfolding of History
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The Vienna Declaration
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Framework Convention on National minorities



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First World War
background & origins