WHAT CAUSED THE GREAT WAR?

When Gavrilo Princip opened fire on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he killed not just the heir to the Austrian throne, but sentenced to death over million people in four years. But if assassination was the excuse, it wasn’t the cause…

1 February 1864

PRINCE EDWARD NURSES A GRUDGE

British foreign policy is redefined after the Prussian invasion of Denmark

Prussia and Austria’s devastating seizure of the ethnically mixed territories of Schleswig and Holstein, which separated Denmark from what is now Germany, shocked the young British Prince Edward — the future King Edward VII — who was only months into his marriage to Alexandra of Denmark. The pair openly supported the Danes in the conflict in spite of an increasingly pro-German Queen Victoria.

This conflict, the Second Schleswig War — coupled with his cold relationship with his mother — formed the bedrock of Edward VII’s foreign policy, and he cultivated a staunchly pro-French and anti-German clique that would survive in government long after his death in 1910. Under Edward VII’s influence, the Royal Navy was reformed and modernised to counter the growing German navy, and Britain’s aloof isolation slipped away in favour of treaties with France and Russia that would one day become the Triple Entente, dragging the United Kingdom and its empire into war.

8 February 1867

THE OLD EMPIRE CRASHES DPI

The Austrian Empire is replaced by the Dual Monarchy

A dispute between the traditional guiding hand of the Germanic states — Austria, whose Habsburg family had ruled since 1278 — and the increasingly powerful Kingdom of Prussia — under Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck and King Wilhelm I — allowed the growing rivalry between the two powers to bubble to the surface in open war.

Left weakened and with Hungary set to break away, the Austrian Empire was dissolved in favour of a cumbersome Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, in which each state was governed independently and then together by a convoluted system of joint-ministers. This solution to Austria’s internal instability in turn created a whole new set of stress points in the vast edifice, including Hungary’s oppressive policies towards its non-Hungarian subjects, made them easy prey to Serb and Russian-sponsored agitation that would prove so toxic in Austrian-run Bosnia in 1914.

With Austria’s traditional dependencies, the myriad small German principalities, now under the banner of one Prussian-dominated North German Confederation, Austria-Hungary had to look toward the Balkans and the waning Ottoman influence for opportunities to expand.

19 July 1870

Germany unites at France’s expense

Believing «a Franco-Prussian War must take place before a united Germany was formed», Otto von Bismarck goaded France into attacking. The French defeat brought down the Second French Empire of Napoleon 111 — the monarch was captured along with the remainder of his army — and a vast Prussian occupation of huge swathes of France until war reparations were paid.

This humiliation, along with the annexation of the valuable and heavily industrialised Alsace-Lorraine border region became a huge national tragedy. It remained at the heart of French culture in the run-up to World War I, as foreign affairs revolved around preparing for a new conflict with Germany, and public opinion called for the return of the lost provinces. In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, the North German Confederation was dissolved and replaced by a unified German Empire, led by Kaiser Wilhelm I and Chancellor Von Bismarck, while the French Third Republic formed in Paris.

20 March 1890

BISMARCK IS FORCED INTO RETIREMENT

German foreign policy turns belligerent as the Kaiser takes over

Though Otto von Bismarck’s role in the birth of the German Empire and a renewed enmity with France left him with a reputation for belligerence, the ‘Iron Chancellor’ was a stabilising force for central Europe.

He kept Germany back from the rush for colonies that would bring it into direct competition with other powers, declaring in 1876 that a war in the Balkans wouldn’t be worth «the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian musketeer». He also signed the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1887 that limited their involvement in conflicts with each other.

Wilhelm II succeeded his father, Kaiser Frederick III, with a very different set of priorities and the two clashed constantly, the toxic atmosphere in the court eventually forcing Bismarck to resign in 1890. His replacement — Leo von Caprivi — was far more in step with Wilhelm’s vision, fatally letting the Reinsurance Treaty lapse — pushing Russia towards France — in favour of a friendship with Britain that would never come to fruition, leaving Germany isolated in Europe by 1914.

4 January 1894

France and Russia join forces

France and Russia form a modern military alliance

A less likely love affair it would be difficult to imagine: democratic republican France and archaic autocratic imperial Russia cosy up despite public outcry in both countries.

France felt encircled by Britain and Germany who were enjoying a rare cosiness at this point, while likewise Russia saw itself threatened by the British Empire in central Asia, and the Far East, and by Germany’s allies Austria-Hungary in Europe.

Where past treaties were agreements between governments designed to keep them from interfering in each other’s business, this was primarily a military pact with a guaranteed military response if the other was attacked.

With no room for ambiguity, the Franco-Russian Alliance was the first of many that would bind the military powers of Europe together like mountain climbers, just waiting for one to fall and the rest to go tumbling after.

29 December 1895

Germany is warned off in southern Africa

Though the competing British and German interests around what is now South Africa had been a clear flashpoint for decades, the British Cape Colony’s failed raid on the independent Transvaal Republic that would eventually lead to the Boer War — though unsanctioned by Britain — received the motherland’s firm backing.

Kaiser Wilhelm II drafted a letter of congratulation to Boer president Paul Kruger that was celebrated by the German press and sparked outrage in its British counterparts. Germany’s urbane ambassador to London was shocked when the Foreign Office’s bullish Sir Francis Bertie informed him that wiping out the German navy would be “child’s play for the English fleet”.

Very much aware of their limitations, their political isolation and of Britain’s over reaction, Wilhelm II resolved to increase the power of the German Imperial Navy and to treat Britain no longer just as a potential ally but also as a potential threat.

10 July 1898

Britain and France size each other lip

The scramble for Africa reached crisis point as France and Britain coveted control of the Nile to link up their African colonies. France especially felt threatened by Britain’s occupation of Egypt in 1882 and quickly dispatched a small force to Fashoda (now Kodok in south Sudan) where the lines of both powers’ empires intersected.

After a daring 14-month trek across Africa, the French force seized Fashoda on 10 July 1898, however reinforcements turned back, and a flotilla of British gunboats led by imperialism’s posterboy, Horatio Herbert Kitchener, arrived at the isolated fort — both sides politely insisting on their right to be there, and rather nobly agreeing to fly British, French and Egyptian flags over the fort in compromise. At home, meanwhile, talk of war gripped both parliaments — only when it looked as though victory would hinge on sea-power, putting the lighter, faster French fleet at the mercy of the heavier British one, did the French withdraw and an official boundary was agreed between the two powers.

The normalisation of British and French relations after the Fashoda Incident, and the clear demarcation of influence, relieved the constant pressure between the two to an extent, setting them off from hundreds of years of semi-regular bloodshed on a new course towards alliance.

11 June 1903

The black hand strikes

Austro-Serbian friendship dies with Serb king at hands of secret society

In a scandal that shocked all of Europe, Serbia’s deeply unpopular and pro-Austrian king Alexander Obrenovic and his wife were murdered by a cabal of army officers who forced their way into the palace and rousted the royal couple from their hiding place.

Perpetrated by the Black Hand, a radical nationalist secret society dedicated to absorbing ‘Serb’ lands (whether Bosnian, Macedonians or Croatians liked it or not) from the rule of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, the Black Hand were already so entrenched in Serbia’s powerful military that the new government refused all foreign diplomatic pressure to have them arrested for fear they’d be the next rulers to be brutally murdered. One of the key conspirators — Dragutin ‘Apis’ Dimitrijevic — would later become the leader of the Black Hand and Serbia’s head of military intelligence — a powerful combination that would allow him to organise a failed attempt on the life of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef in 1911, and a more successful and infamous attack on Franz Ferdinand three years later.

31 March 1905

THE KAISER PAYS A VISIT TO TANGIER

Germany’s attempt to drive a wedge between Britain and France fails

Keen to test the extent of France and Britain’s Entente Cordiale — signed 8 April 1904 and putting an end to colonial rivalry in Africa and Asia — Wilhelm II arrives in Tangier to deliver a speech in favour of Moroccan independence — much to the chagrin of France, who planned to take over Morocco as a protectorate.

The Kaiser expected to use the ensuing conference to resolve the situation as an opportunity to magnanimously grant France limited control, bringing them closer to Germany and isolating Britain, but to his surprise British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey backed the French in the strongest possible terms, and it’s Germany that, once again, came away isolated. The Tangier Crisis paved the way for the Agadir Crisis in 1911, which despite higher stakes — a German gunship off the coast, and French and Spanish troop deployments on Morocco’s streets — the German aims were the same, and so were the results: Franco-British military dependency increased, as did the French hold on Morocco and Germany’s political encirclement.

5 September 1905

Japan checks Russian colonialism

Imperial Russia’s colonial ambitions in Asia finally overreached themselves, and the Japanese launched a devastating night attack on 8 February 1904 against the fleet anchored at Port Arthur (now Lushunkou).

This blow to Russia not only brought the Tsarist autocracy to the brink with the Revolution of 1905, but forced Russia to look to the west to expand its influence. The factions in the imperial court fixated on increasing Russia’s influence over the Slavic and Orthodox Christian nationalities were strengthened, and foreign policy became increasingly fixated on Bulgaria and Serbia especially. The desire to gain control over the Turkish Straits which would allow the Russian fleet in the Black Sea access to the Mediterranean also grew.

6 October 1908

Austria takes Bosnia

Austro-Hungarian troops had been in the Ottoman province of Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1878 running it in all but name. In a series of letters and a six-hour secret meeting, Russian foreign minister, Alexander Izvolsky, and Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, Alois Aehrenthal, agreed a revision to the treaty of 1878, allowing Austria-Hungary full control of Bosnia. When the Austrians announced their intent Izvolsky acted as outraged as the rest of Europe’s political movers and shakers (but not nearly as outraged as Serbia) and only when Vienna threatened to release secret records proving Izvolsky’s duplicity did Russia back down and force Serbia to accept the annexation.

This affair prompted a shift in the direction of Serbian nationalism and public outrage that had so far been more preoccupied with Macedonia and Kosovo. Italy, meanwhile — part of the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany — had been long promised territory on the Croatian coast if Austria were to take Bosnia. Affronted, the Italian government would cite this breach of trust when they joined WWI on the side of the Triple Entente in 1915.

29 September 1911

ITALY STARTS A FEEDING FRENZY

Italy invades Libya and kicks off the First Balkan War

Though Britain and France had carved off Egypt and Morocco from the fringes of the Ottoman Empire, Italy’s sudden invasion of Libya — one of the empire’s central provinces — stunned the world. The superior technology of the Italians and their use of air reconnaissance saw them quicldy take key cities before becoming bogged down in guerrilla warfare and counterattacks, while the brutal naval assault on the Dodecanese — the southernmost Greek islands — bloodied the Turks and forced them on the defensive.

While it lacked off a chain reaction (goaded on by the Russian ambassador to Belgrade) in the Balkans that led to the First Balkan War, the Italian seizure of Libya demonstrated a shift in Italy’s foreign relations away from its traditional allies. Rather than consult its Triple Alliance partners Germany and Austria-Hungary — both invested in the integrity of the Ottoman Empire — they cleared the campaign with France and Britain beforehand instead.

21 January 1912

France votes «oui» for nationalism

Voted in on a wave of nationalism following the Agadir Crisis in July 1911, hardline anti-German prime minister Raymond Poincare presided over a lurch to the right.

Made president the following year he consolidated control of foreign policy and the Higher Council of War, and dispatched veteran statesman Theophile Delcasse — dubbed «the most dangerous man for Germany in France» by Wilhelm II as ambassador to Russia to better co-ordinate Franco-Russian military strategy.

As Poincare’s government prepared for war he also made it more likely, telling Russian ambassador, Alexander Izvolsky, that any conflict with Austria-Hungary arising from the First Balkan War would have France’s backing.

The hawks in the French government calculated that not only would a war over the Balkans be the surest guarantee that Russia would commit all of its forces to the field, but an Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia would bog down the Dual Monarchy, leaving the allies free to tackle Germany.

12 February 1912

ANGLO GERMAN ARMS TALKS SINK

Negotiations for a cap on boat building are rejected

With both powers exhausted by boatbuilding fever that had formed the backbone of Britain’s national self-esteem and the key German status as its equal, the war secretary Richard Haldane, paid a secret visit to Berlin to try and halt the escalation.

The balance of national egos was simply too fragile. Germany wanted a guarantee of British neutrality in any future conflict, and Britain saw its own naval superiority as something they didn’t have magnanimously gifted by Germany in exchange.

As a result, Haldane returned empty handed, the naval buildup continued unabated and, more importantly Germany pushed Britain further into a military death-grip with Russia and France.

14 December 1913

Constantinople looks to Germany

Russia’s lust for the Turkish Straits may have been pushed to second place during the Balkan wars, but they hadn’t lost sight of their longterm goal. The arrival of Otto Liman von Sanders’ German military mission on 14 December 1913 to train and command the first corps of the Ottoman army following humiliating Turkish defeats in the Balkans gave them even greater cause for concern than the presence of a British admiral doing the same job with the Ottoman navy.

Though Germany compromised heavily to keep the diplomatic crisis from boiling over (which in turn left the Germans with a sense of resentment), Russia’s lack of backing from even the ardently anti-German Delcasse was a potent reminder to Russia that, despite the Triple Entente, its allies had very different priorities.

Viewing for the first time Germany, and not just Austria-Hungary, as a direct threat to Russia’s aims, they realised that the only way they could gain control of the Turkish Straits would be against the backdrop of a wider European war, in which France and especially Britain were bound to Russia.

30 September 1912

RUSSIA FLEXES ITS MILITARY MUSCLE

As the First Balkan War gets underway, Russia points its guns towards Austria

With the Balkan League of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro gearing up to snatch territory from the Ottoman Turks in the wake of Italy’s invasion of Ottoman-held Libya the year before, their great protector -Russia — made its stance clear.

If Austria-Hungary was alarmed by this potential shakeup of the borders, the rapid mobilisation of 50,000-60,000 Russian reservists along the Polish border with I Austria-Hungary alarmed them more. This was the first major aggressive move by Russia against its rivals, breaking with I the tradition of covert deal-breaking that would foreshadow the events of 1914, and the robust defence of Serbia that would swallow much of the planet in war.

Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, observed that were it to come to 1 conflict, ”We can probably rely on the real ‘ support of France and England.»

17 October 1913

SERBIA DIGS IN OVER ALBANIA

The success of the Balkan League in the First Balkan War alarmed Austria-Hungary no end. Now the Second Balkan War had begun, with each combatant eager to consolidate its gains. Serbia — the chief cause of their anxiety — had won crushing victories in Macedonia and then marched into Albania and Kosovo to hold vast swathes of territory.

Reports of massacres followed, and even rumours that the Austro-Hungarian consul in Prizren, Kosovo, had been abducted and castrated.

Alternately claiming ignorance of any occupation and then lying about withdrawal, Austria-Hungary grew convinced that Serbia couldn’t be bargained with and would only respond to force. On 17 October 1913, Austria-Hungary gave Serbia eight days to leave the contested territory or they would face military action, and Russia advised them to do as they were told. By 26 October Albania was free of Serbian troops and the success of the Albanian ultimatum

-and the demonstration of a clear limit to Russia’s support

-would lead Vienna to try and repeat the performance in 1914, with very different consequences.

14 December 1913

Constantinople looks to Germany

Russia’s lust for the Turkish Straits may have been pushed to second place during the Balkan wars, but they hadn’t lost sight of their longterm goal. The arrival of Otto Liman von Sanders’ German military mission on 14 December 1913 to train and command the first corps of the Ottoman army following humiliating Turkish defeats in the Balkans gave them even greater cause for concern than the presence of a British admiral doing the same job with the Ottoman navy.

Though Germany compromised heavily to keep the diplomatic crisis from boiling over (which in turn left the Germans with a sense of resentment), Russia’s lack of backing from even the ardently anti-German Delcasse was a potent reminder to Russia that, despite the Triple Entente, its allies had very different priorities.

Viewing for the first time Germany, and not just Austria-Hungary, as a direct threat to Russia’s aims, they realised that the only way they could gain control of the Turkish Straits would be against the backdrop of a wider European war, in which France and especially Britain were bound to Russia.

21 June 1914

SERBIA ISSUES AN OPAQUE WARNING

Serbian prime minister fails to warn of plot against Franz Ferdinand

In June 1914, the Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pasic, sent a telegram to the Serbian legation in Vienna warning of a plot against Franz Ferdinand. Belgrade’s man in Vienna, Jovan Jovanovic, then met with the Austro-Hungarian finance minister on 21 June 1914 to warn in the vaguest terms that a visit by the Archduke could end in tragedy. That Pasic didn’t communicate the threat directly to the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, instead choosing the ultranationalist Jovanovic — who is rumoured to have commanded guerrilla bands in Bosnia after annexation — who could be relied upon to tell someone further from decision making and probably tell them as unconvincingly as possible, suggests that this might have been a warning Pasic felt he needed to be seen to issue, but didn’t necessarily want to be heard.

28 June 1914

Ferdinand is assassinated

On 28 June 1914 the Archduke Franz Ferdinand — nephew and heir to Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary — along with his wife — Duchess Sophie — were shot and killed while inspecting the troops in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. The man pulling the trigger was radicalised Bosnian-Serb student, Gavrilo Princip — an assassin from the secret military society, the Black Hand, which was equipped and supported by conspirators within the Serbian army.

Though unpopular, the Archduke’s death provided all the pretext the Habsburg court needed to curtail the belligerent Serbia. Beyond the excuse it provided, Franz Ferdinand was the leader of a think-tank within the Austro-Hungarian military that advocated reorganising the empire along federal lines.

A more representative Austria-Hungary could have silenced demands for independence from the Slavic communities in the empire — many of whom were still relatively loyal to Franz Josef himself, just critical of the state — loosening Serbia’s influence in Croatia and Bosnia. It also would have undermined Russia’s self-proclaimed mission to ‘protect’ the Slavic and Orthodox Christian people. But it was never to be.

23 July 1914

AUSTRIA-HUNGARY DECLARES WAR!

Political alliances lead to domino-effect war

Concerned that public opinion would not back war, the Austro-Hungarian government — champing at the bit to knock the Balkan upstart down a peg or two since 1912 — prepared an ultimatum that would be near impossible for Serbia to accept. Wilhelm II in Berlin voiced his support for Austria-Hungary, advising the German ambassador to Vienna, «We must finish with the Serbs, quickly.

Now or never!» Indeed the conditions were too humiliating for Serbia to agree to and, on 28 July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Like a chain of dominos tumbling in succession Russia, Germany, France, Britain and all their overseas dominions were plunged into war. Italy, the Ottoman Empire, Japan and eventually the US would follow, as World War I progressed.

Like this post? Please share to your friends: