Triple Entente, Triple Alliance
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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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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First World War
background & origins