(World History) FIRST WORLD WAR


  • The First World War, of 1914-1918, was one of the greatest disasters that ever befell mankind.
  • It was not an unexpected tragedy because during the 40 years preceding its outbreak, the development had been dragging Europe towards a world war.
  • Though the conditions were explosive, peace was maintained to some extent up to 1914, by the great powers.
  • This kind of peace was rightly called “Armed peace”. The general causes for the outbreak of the First World War may be stated as follows: 
  • The greatest war that witnessed the first quarter of the 20th century was the First World War. 
  • In nature and character is it sharply deviates from the previous wars. Firstly it was a complete war. 
  • It was fought on the land, in the air and over the seas. It was fought in different countries distributed throughout the length and breadth of the world.
  • Almost all the countries of the world, either directly or indirectly experienced vibrations of the war.


  • A major cause for the outbreak of World War-I (1914-1918) was “militarism”.
  • The system of alliance divided Europe into two hostile camps.
  • The purpose of the alliances was to secure national security but in reality, they led to increase in security among the nations of Europe. Each group feared that the other group would try to become militant. 
  • The distrust and suspicion, led to an armament race. In a year, it created tensions among the countries of Europe to affect the First World War.
  • In the latter half of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century most of the powerful countries in Europe started building up powerful standing armies. 
  • Elaborate espionage system, strong navies and a powerful class of military and naval officers headed by general staff much of the national wealth spent to increase the strength and power.
  • These powerful armaments were alleged to before defence and in the interest of peace. 
  • They actually created a sense of universal fear and suspicion, mistrust and hatred in between the nations.
  • This is amply attested by the Germany two ships were built by England. Such a race in building powerful and dangerous weapons could end only in a war.
  • Moreover militarism put too much of power in the hands of the general staff. Under these circumstances preserving peace was a precarious proposition. 


  • The colonial rivalry and imperialism of the European powers were also a cause for the outbreak World War -I.
  • The rapid industrialization of Europe in the 19 century created a need for raw materials and markets. Every European country tried to capture markets in every other part of the world. 
  • The efforts to establish protectorates and spheres of influences in Africa and Asia resulted in the upsurge of imperialistic rivalries among the European nations, which in turn, gave rise to a series of international crises.
  • Austria and Russia came into conflict in the Balkans.
  • Germany, since the beginning of the 20th century, became a serious imperialist rival to Great Britain, France and Russia. Kaiser William II’s project for the construction of the Berlin- Baghdad railway, threatened the Russian interest in the Balkans and those of the English in the east. Germany expansion in South Africa posed a threat to the position of the British in that area.
  • The widening of Kiel Canal, and German effort to rival England in naval power, threatened the supremacy of Great Britain over the seas. Further, Germany and France became rivals in morocco.
  • The “Moroccan crisis” and “Agadir crisis” led to complete breach between Germany and Great Britain. The economic rivalry between Great Britain and Germany, was particularly bitter, German’s industrial goods by the beginning of the 20thcentury competed with those of Great Britain.
  • The economic imperialism, in which they were engaged, widened the breach between Germany and England. Thus, imperialism was yet another cause for outbreak of the world war -I

The Dual alliance between France and Russia, 1895

  • The non renewal of the reinsurance treaty with Russia by the new Kaiser, led to the formation of the Dual alliance between France and Russia in 1895. France which had so far been completely isolated, watched, the growing enmity between Germany and Russia. 
  • France immediately began to woo Russia which was badly in need of economic help. France offered economic aid and French arms to Russia. 
  • The friendship between the two countries was further strengthened by naval visits.
  • Finally in 1895 the Dual alliance between France and Russia was concluded. By this Russia promised to support France, if she was attacked by Germany or Italy or by both. France, in turn agreed to assist Russia, if she was attacked by Austria, Hungary or Germany or both.
  • Thus, the isolation of the France came to an end, and the powers of Europe were drifting into two armed blocks. Only England remained aloof.
  • After the over throw of napoleon in the battle of waterloo in 1815, England followed a policy of aloofness from Europe politics.
  • But whenever her colonial interests in the east were affected by the European powers she used to intervene in European politics.
  • This policy of England in her foreign affairs is frequently described as the policy of ‘splendid isolation’. 
  • This was a time when England avoided any alignment with any other country. There were five main reasons that prompted England to adopt the policy of splendid isolation.
  1. England realized that it was fertile to indulge in European politics. 
  2. England’s attention was diverted from Europe to the burning problem at home, viz., and the Irish agitation for home rule. 
  3. England’s lack of interest in trade with Europe turned her away from involvement in European politics. But, Bismarck’s system of alliances and the regrouping of the European powers into two armed blocks by 1895, made England realize the danger of her policy of pursuing isolation. The developments that took place showed that the policy splendid isolation was not wise.

Fashoda crisis 1898 

  • The famous Fashoda crisis arose in 1898. This was a major political crisis which almost precipitated a war between France and Great Britain.
  • Under instruction from the French foreign minister, captain marchand marched into Sudan, and hoisted the French flag in the village of Fashoda, claiming Sudan for France. 
  • When the British general, kitchener came to know of it, he rushed to the post, and asked marchand to leave the place.
  • A war between the two seemed imminent. Luckily, better counsels prevailed, and the new French foreign minister, declasse, who was pro- British, decided to withdraw the French forces. Thus, the Fashoda crisis was amicably settled.
  • Though the Fashoda incident passed off peacefully, England felt her loneliness. Another incident which compelled England to discard the isolation policy was the Boer war. The Boers in Trans in South Africa revolted against the British administration in1899.
  • All the great powers in Europe supported the cause of the Boers. England suppressed the revolt single handed. By this, Great Britain was disillusioned with her policy of the ‘splendid isolation’. From then onwards, England started looking out for a friend in Europe. 

English attempts to be friend Germany

  • Great Britain and France were traditional and colonial rivals, and so there was no possibility of a lasting friendship between them. Russia and Great Britain were rivals in Balkans and Afghanistan.
  • The only country for England with which there was a chance of its reaching a closer understanding was Germany.
  • England initiated negotiations with Germany. Between 1900-1902, efforts were made to win over Germany. Kaiser William II visited England on the eve of the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.
  • There, he spoke highly of Germany’s links with England. Great honours were showered on him. 
  • The British statements proposed an agreement with Germany. But there was no friendly response from the Germans, who interpreted it as a sign of British weakness.
  • The result was that all attempts to win over Germany were given up.

Increased tension and German naval policy

  • Germany not only rebuffed Britain’s suggestions for an alliance, but embarked on an aggressive policy. 
  • Through this policy, it determined not only to become the greatest military power in Europe, but also to expand its influence in the Middle East and the Balkans, secure more colonies overseas, and build a battle fleet second to none.
  • A huge naval programme was initiated in1900, providing for the construction of a fleet strong enough to threaten the supremacy of the English royal navy within twenty years.
  • The naval programmes of Germany seriously alarmed Great Britain. Anglo – German relations quickly deteriorated after 1900. 
  • The British were also greatly worried at the tremendous growth of the German industry. Further, Kaiser threatening and irresponsible speeches has contrasted with the growing mistrust in Great Britain.
  • Rebuffed and challenged by Germany, Great Britain turned for allies in other directions.

Entente cordiate, 1914

  • In 1902, through England concluded a treaty with Japan, England was not satisfied with it.
  • As the danger posed by Germany began to grow, her search for friends on the continent increased. She found in Germany a rival more dangerous than fence and Russia. Britain found a conveniently in France, and France was also ready for friendship with Britain.
  • Thus, the traditional colonial rivals came together to settle their disputes amicably. Delasse, the French foreign minister, was a friend of England, and the Anglo – French relations continued to improve.
  • In 1903, Edward VII paid a visit to France, and the French people gave him a hearty welcome. President Loubet and déclassé were welcomed in England with equal warmth and enthusiasm.
  • The result was the conclusion of the Anglo French entente in 1904. By this, England French claims in morocco, and France in turn, accepted the British protectrate over Egypt. Their difference in West Africa, Siam and New Foundland were also settled.
  • The Anglo- French entene was not a military alliance. It only signified cordial relations between the two countries. It certainly marked a new chapter in the history of Anglo-French relations.
  • The traditional enemity was converted into cordiality. The entente cordiale put on end to the British traditional policy of isolation. 

Anglo – Russian entente, 1907

  • Great Britain and Russia had been enemies in the Middle East, in Persia and in Tibet.
  • It was in the interest of France that reconciliation should be brought about between England and Russia. Déclassé had done his best to achieve it. 
  • Even after his dismissal, efforts continued in that direction. The defeat of Russia by Japan in the Russia –Japanese war of 1904, exposed Russian weakness, and convinced Britain that she had nothing to fear from Russia.
  • Under the pressure of Paris, Britain and Russia came closer to one another. Russia was influenced by France, her partner in the dual alliance, and agreed to settle her differences with Great Britain.
  • The result was the forging in 1907 of the famous Anglo- Russian entente, through which all matters of dispute between them were peacefully solved. Agreement was reached on the spheres of influence in Persia. 
  • Britain was recognized as dominant in Afghanistan, and they agreed not to interfere in the affairs of Tibet. 

The triple entente 1907

  • The Anglo-Russian entente merged into a triple entente between Great Britain, France and Russia.
  • It was a non –military alliance, but the three countries agreed to consult one another in international affairs. This mutual collaboration developed greater understanding and solidarity among them.

Excessive nationalism coupled with chauvinism

  • Excessive and narrow nationalism was one of the causes for the world war-I nationalism implies patriotism, the love of the country, which if in excess, will lead to the hatred of the other. 
  • The spirit of nationalism gave rise to national chauvinism which created unhealthy relations between the European powers.
  • There existed a deep – seated antagonism between the Teutonic races and the slow races. Since the unification of Germany, the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine had been a bone of contention between France and Germany. 
  • The Italians treated Austria as their national enemy, and wanted to liberate “Italia Irredenta” from Austrian rule. The annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria in 1908 caused resentment in Serbia.
  • There was an upsurge of nationalism in those two provinces which led to their demanding their union with Serbia, with whom they had racial affinities.
  • After the expulsion of turkey from Europe, there developed national rivalries among the Balkan states- Bulgaria, Rumania, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro- which culminated in the second Balkan war of 1913. 
  • Bulgaria which was humiliated by a combination of the other Balkan powers in that war, contemplated a war of revenge.

War psychosis in Germany 

  • Germany, since its foundation, had been a military state.
  • She was the product of the blood and iron policy of Bismarck, and continued as such, even after the achievement of Germany unity. Germans were great advocated of militarism.
  • It was aptly observed that the “national industry of Prussia was war”.
  • The Germany army was the strongest and most powerful in Europe.
  • At the beginning of the 20th century, there was virulent war propaganda in Germany to which the accession of Kaiser William II gave an impetus.
  • Young and energetic, Kaiser wanted Germany to be great world power. Germany under the new Kaiser demanded a ‘place in the sun’; an empire- ‘well politic’ or world policy became the slogan of the Germans who were led to believe that theirs was a superior race, which was destined to conquer the world.

International anarchy 

  • Another cause of the war was the prevalence of international anarchy in Europe, which led to the breakdown of the peace machinery.
  • The Great War would have been averted, if there was an international machinery to settle the disputes between nations.
  • The concert of Europe formed after Napoleonic wars, which aimed at preventing future wars, died an untimely death, and was not replaced by any such instrument. Bismarck secret alliances created conditions unfavorable to the growth of friendly relations among the countries. 
  • Mutual distrust and suspicion resulted in an armaments race among the countries of Europe.
  • The two Hague conferences of 1889 and 1907, convened by Tsar Nicholas, to consider the possibility of using arbitration to settle disputes, utterly failed. 
  • The conferences failed to evolve permanent international machinery to keep the world safe for peace.
  • Though it established the court of arbitration at The Hague, it failed to maintain peace among the nations.
  • No peace machinery was available to avert the two Moroccan crises, and the two Balkan wars, which ended on an ominous note. The absences of international machinery and ethics led to the outbreak of a general war in 1914.

Incidents prior to the war

  • For a decade (1905-1914) before the outbreak of the First World War, Europe experienced a series of crisis, but miraculously averted the breaking out of any major war till 1914.

Morocco crisis:

  • Morocco was the neighbor of French Algeria in north coast Africa.
  • Both France and Germany had commercial interest in morocco.
  • In 1905 the political conditions in morocco were disturbed.
  • France resolved to interfered in it affairs and complied the sultan, Abdul Aziz, to carry out reforms calculated to into the situation. But, Germany opposed French intervention in the internal affairs of morocco.
  • The Germany emperor Kaiser William II, himself landed with forces in tangier, and declared his support to the independence of the sultan.
  • The Germany emperor‘s action suddenly led to an international crisis, known as the first Morocaan crisis in 1905.
  • But major war was averted due to the acceptance by France of the German demand for an international conference of great powers to settle the Moroccan dispute accordingly an international conference arranged Algeria in southern Spain in 1906.
  • Germany aim was to destroy the Anglo French entente of 1904. But throughout the deliberation of conference, Italy, Great Britain and several other powers supported France.
  • Germany was isolated at the conference. France established her protectorate over morocco this was a serious set- back to the Germany, which become all the more hostile to England. 
  • The crisis intensified the old animosity between Germany and England and strengthened the friendship between France and England. 

The Balkan crisis

  • The Anglo Russian cordiale of 1907 was a landmark in international diplomacy, as it marked the end of a long period of hostility between the two countries.
  • This roused the suspicion of the Germans, and the Kaiser bitterly complained of the encirclement of Germany. So he wanted to strength the triple alliance. 
  • Austria too feared the Turkish regeneration, due to the Young Turk movement in 1908. So supported by Germany, Austria, Hungary annexed the two provinces, Bosnia and Herzegovina in1908, which was a violent of the treaty of Berlin of 1878. Serbia bitterly protested against the action of Austria.
  • Russia supported Serbia. The dispute between Austria and Serbia would have led to war, but for the payment of compensation by Austria to turkey for the loss of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since the annexation was accepted by turkey, Russia kept quiet.
  • But, the annexation resulted in extremely strained relations between Serbia and Austria. The hostile attitude of the Serbians continued to threaten peace in the Balkans. It was this crisis which ultimately triggered off the World War I.

Agadir incident

  • In 1911, a civil war broke out in Morocco. The sultan of morocco appealed to France for help. Immediately, France sent a naval force which landed in morocco, and occupied Fez, the capital. Germany protested against the French intervention in morocco and sent a gunboat, named panther to the port of Agadir; on Atlantic coast of morocco to safe guard the lives of German nationals and German economic interests.
  • Once again a tense situation was created and the peace of Europe was threatened. This was known as the Agadir incident or second Moroccan crisis.
  • In this Great Britain firmly supported France, and strongly protested against the German military action. Germany was not prepared to risk a war with Great Britain. 
  • Consequently, the German warship was withdrawn and war was thus averted. 

Immediate Causes for the First World War

  • On 28 June 1914 a 19-year-old Serbian terrorist, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated the Archduke, France Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophia at Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, then under Austro-Hungarian rule.
  • Convinced that the assassin had the secret backing of the kingdom of Serbia, on 28 July, regardless of Serbia’s willingness to make concessions, Austria declared war.
  • The incident at Sarajevo provided Austria with the excuse it sought to crush rebellious Serbia and end Russian meddling in the Balkans once and for all.
  • The next day Russia mobilized in support of the Serbs. As mother of the Slavs, she had no choice; especially as she had given in the Austrians over an earlier Balkan crisis in 1908–9.
  • On 1 August Germany declared war on Russia. Faced by the possibility of fighting both France and Russia, and having already given its word to Austria that in the event of war between Russia and Austria it would come to Austria’s aid, Germany dared not delay, in a highly industrialized, mechanized Europe, the whole time sequence of war had changed.
  • How troops were moved into battle before 1870 was secondary; after 1870 it was primary; mobilizing and committing to battle millions of men depended on intricate movements of troops by road and rail, which could not be stopped and started at will – at least not if one hoped to win the war. 
  • On 3 August, Germany declared war on France. On 4 August, German troops having invaded Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany; almost instantaneously, Britain’s dominions rallied to its support.
  • Like a Greek tragedy, no one was able to stop the madness. Enthusiasm among the common people of Europe to go to war was unbounded. 
  • All ran to meet their fate, convinced that their cause was just and true, and that they were fighting to defend themselves and the world.
  • ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe,’ said Sir Edward Grey (1862–1933), British Foreign Secretary, ‘we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’ Pax Britannica, established during the long reign of Queen Victoria (b. 1819, reigned 1837–1901), was about to end. 
  • Although the war burst upon Europe out of a clear summer’s sky, it had been long in forming. It was the culmination of all that was dangerous in Europe’s excessive nationalism. Caesar and Christianity had brought unity to Europe, nationalism brought discord.
  • Two nationalist wars, the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, involving Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania, Albania and Turkey, had preceded it.
  • Although the war of 1912 had largely expelled the disintegrating Ottoman Empire from Europe, neither war had provided a permanent solution to the rivalry between Russia and Austria- Hungary in the Balkans.
  • On the contrary, egged on by Russia, Serbia had begun to exert even greater pressure on the already weakened Austro- Hungarian Empire. Britain, France and Germany were not directly involved in the ‘Greater Serbia Question’ – the basis of Austria’s antagonism to Serbia’s and Russia’s intrigues in the Balkans – but their allies were.
  • The problem of Serbian national aspirations had become insoluble except by war. It only required the Archduke’s assassination to kindle the flame of war again. 
  • Monumental stupidity, cowardice, existing alliances, propaganda, miscalculations, impulsiveness, mobilizations and ultimate did the rest.
  • If one adds the less visible but much more deadly forces of hysteria, honor, patriotism, nationalism, passion and glory, then war was certain. 
  • Although the chain of events unleashed by the assassination triggered the war, the war’s origins go deeper, involving national politics, cultures, economics, and a complex web of alliances and counterbalances that had developed between the various European powers since 1870.

Some of the most important long term or structural causes are:

  • The growth of nationalism across Europe, unresolved territorial disputes, an intricate system of alliances, the perceived breakdown of the balance of power in Europe, convoluted and fragmented governance, the arms races of the previous decades, previous military planning, imperial and colonial rivalry for wealth, power and prestige, and economic and military rivalry in industry and trade – e.g., the Pig War between Austria and Serbia. 
  • Other causes that came into play during the diplomatic crisis that preceded the war included misperceptions of intent (e.g., the German belief that the United Kingdom would remain neutral) and delays and misunderstandings in diplomatic communications.

Start of the War

At the start of the war, these were the major players (more countries joined the war later):

Allied Forces (a.k.a. the Allies): France, the United Kingdom, Russia

Central Powers: Germany and Austria-Hungary

  • With war declared, the military alliances agreed upon earlier between the powers came into effect (Map XIII).
  • Germany was committed to supporting Austria-Hungary and Italy (the Triple Alliance of 1882). France was committed to supporting Russia (the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894). Britain was committed to France (the Anglo-French Entente of 1904), and to Russia and France (the Triple Entente of 1907).
  • The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers (1914) because the Turks were the traditional enemies of the Russians; the Bulgarians joined in 1915 because they had lost territory to the Serbs in the Balkan War of 1913.
  • Later, Italy (1915), Romania and Portugal (1916), and Greece and the United States (1917) would join the Allies. 
  • The Japanese entered the war against Germany because they were committed to do so under the Anglo-Japanese treaties of 1902 and 1905, and because they hoped to obtain the German-held Shantung province of China and the German Mariana, Caroline and Marshall Islands in the Pacific (Map IX). Japan would be responsible for bringing China into the war on the side of the Allies in 1915. 
  • Although Italy (unified between 1859 and 1870) was committed, under the Triple Alliance of 1882, to go to the aid of Germany and Austria, it held back. Austria’s action against Serbia, it argued, was an offensive action incompatible with the Triple Alliance. Instead, in May 1915 – after the Allies had made all kinds of secret promises – Italy switched sides (as it would do in the Second World War) and threw in its lot with the British, the French and the Russians.
  • By then war had engulfed the western world. In Europe, only Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain remained neutral.
  • While the Archduke’s assassination brought affairs in the Balkans to a head, it was not the sole cause of war. Stimulated by the ongoing decline of the Ottoman and Austro Hungarian empires, tensions between the great powers had been growing since the turn of the century.
  • Nothing irked the British in the 20 years before 1914 as much as Germany’s naval challenge. With the annihilation of most of the Russian fleet in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5, only Germany could challenge Britain at sea.
  • (The US fleet was not feared.) ‘Germany’s future,’ Kaiser Wilhelm II had declared, ‘lies on the water.’ The German fleet had moved from sixth to second place – immediately behind the British Royal Navy. 
  • The Germans were also outstripping the British in the size of their merchant marine and in shipbuilding. The fundamental concept of British foreign policy had always been control of the seas around its shores. It was a policy that had been applied with equal vigour against Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon and now the Kaiser.
  • In challenging British mastery on the seas and oceans of the world, Germany was trying to change something which the British thought had been settled in 1805 at Trafalgar.
  • The Germans were also excelling in the production of textiles, synthetic dyes, coal, iron and steel, automobiles (available since the 1890s) and in the volume of world trade.
  • Rising German exports to Britain in the 1890s had caused a lot of criticism in the British press. In commerce and finance, especially in investment banking, the Germans had little to learn from the British.
  • What really upset the British was that the Germans were challenging what the British regarded as their God-given right to rule the world.
  • Little wonder if in August 1914 the British Cabinet showed a reluctance to go to war.
  • It wanted nothing of Europe except peace. Germany resented the world’s destiny being determined by Britain alone. For most of the nineteenth century Germany had been a federation of petty states, which under Bismarck’s leadership had united. Germany was not a ‘Johnny-come-lately’. 
  • The Germans, having overwhelmed Denmark (1864) Austria (1866) and France (1870), had formed their Second Empire in 1871. In building a large fleet to defend its seaways and its shores, in exercising military and industrial power, in claiming an ever-growing share of world trade, in demanding its place in the sun, the German Empire was doing what the British Empire had done. But what was right for Britain was wrong for Germany.
  • Britain bore its responsibilities as the world’s superpower too lightly.
  • To be able ‘to float downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boat hook to avoid collisions’, which is how Lord Salisbury (1830–1903) had described British foreign policy, may be an enviable way of conducting foreign affairs, but it does not say much for Britain’s sense of responsibility as the world’s leading power. When the crisis came in June 1914, Britain acted as a bystander rather than a leader of world affairs.
  • By the time Sir Edward Grey proposed a conference, Austria could not turn back without humiliation. Britain entered the fray because she feared that Germany would overwhelm France and Belgium and reach the Channel ports.
  • If Germany reached the Channel, Britain would be imperilled. Only Germany could unseat Britain as a leading power in Europe. Germany’s alliance with Turkey also threatened one of Britain’s chief arteries to the East. Self-interest dictated British action.
  • In Germany’s violation of Belgian territory on 4 August 1914, Britain found the necessary moral pretext to make war.
  • The basic problem between Britain and Germany, however, was not the violation of Belgian territory, but a much more all-encompassing struggle for European and world power.
  • The wars of 1864, 1866, 1870 and 1914 were essentially about Germany’s position in Europe and the world. For Germany, to obtain more power meant that Britain would have less, and on that point Britain would not compromise.
  • A country like Britain, which was already losing ground in production and trade, had little to gain by reducing its power still more. In any event, a change in the status quo has always been resisted by the leading power of the day.
  • France (whose economic and military power in 1914 was far inferior to that of either Britain or Germany) had even more reason to fear Germany.
  • It had never accepted its overwhelming defeat by Prussia in 1870, which had destroyed the European balance of power established at Vienna in 1815. Nor was it prepared to lose for good the mineral-rich territories of Alsace-Lorraine.
  • Although Germany’s military and industrial power exceeded that of France, another struggle with the Germans was considered inevitable. In preparation for such a struggle, in 1894, France compromised its principle of republicanism by allying itself with tsarist Russia.
  • To foster better relations with the British, it accepted British power in Egypt (1904) and, unlike Germany, deliberately remained neutral (in word and deed) while Britain fought the Boer War (1899–1902).
  • If Britain could be committed to France and Russia (as it was in the Triple Entente of 1907), Germany must become the common enemy. For France to survive, Britain had to be committed. 
  • On that all else depended. At the outbreak of war, France had no choice but to follow where its Russian partner led. France, not Serbia was at stake.
  • It was now or never; either the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) intervened, or Germany would dominate the continent and perhaps the world. 
  • Europe’s leaders seemed bent on war in the early years of the twentieth century with or without the aid of political or economic factors. Except for Britain, conscription had been introduced in most western countries by 1914.
  • France, Germany and Russia had standing armies of about a million men. Governments outdid each other in their preparations for war. Most of Europe’s scientific and industrial talent was increasingly absorbed in the war industries.
  • Since the invention in 1846 of pyroxylin by the German scientist Christian Friedrich Schonbein (1799–1868), the manufacture of explosives had been revolutionized.
  • In 1846 nitroglycerin had been discovered by the Italian Ascanio Sobrero, and (building on the work already done by Russian chemists and artillery officers) from 1862 was manufactured on a large scale by the Swede Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833– 1896). 
  • Five years later Nobel invented dynamite. European civilization had come to be measured not by art, learning or religion, but by a country’s ability to win a war.
  • The people who would eventually be sacrificed were not consulted. It was taken for granted that, as in all the other wars of the nineteenth century, there would be no shortage of men willing to fight.
  • In the decades prior to 1914, every aspect of sea and land warfare was revolutionized. The best battleships existing in the 1880s would have been a match for the entire British fleet existing in the 1870s.
  • The use of steam and oil had raised the speed of 6 knots in the 1870s to 36 knots in the 1880s. In due course, oil not ‘blood and iron’ would be the key to victory. Armour-plating, first introduced in the 1850s, had by 1905 reached a thickness of 24 inches.
  • The Dreadnought battleship, which Britain first launched in 1906, with its 18,000 tons of steel, its 21 knots, and its ten 12-inch guns, mesmerized the world. World power in 1914 rested as never before or since on the capabilities of a nation’s battle fleet. 
  • Paradoxically, the vessel that came closest to cutting Britain’s lifeline with the world – the submarine – was the most neglected of all when the war began. Germany did not have enough submarines to launch a major U-boat campaign against British shipping until 1917. 
  • Few doubted that the war, like most wars after 1865, would be swift and sure. Despite the fact that both civil and military indices of power pointed to French weaknesses, the French plan called for an attack on the entire front with unprecedented speed.
  • Bravery and strategy were what mattered. The danger of a German attack on the exposed left French flank, which eventually took place, was wished away.
  • With a complete disregard for the evidence before them, the German General Staff (under the Schlieffen Plan) intended to end the conflict in six weeks. Again, morale and dash would settle matters.
  • ‘Paris for lunch, St Petersburg for dinner,’ the Kaiser said. By 1914, with war clouds gathering, the Europeans had begun to assemble great armies for the coming fight. 
  • If the worst came to the worst, war was still an acceptable way of settling a dispute. Increasingly, the question asked in the chancelleries of Europe was not ‘Will there be war?’ but ‘When will there be war?’
  • The preparations for war in Europe in the 20 years before 1914 did not go unchallenged. Following the German Navy’s show of force at Agadir on the Atlantic coast of Morocco in 1911, which heightened tensions between the European powers, the Socialist International swore it would oppose a capitalist war with every means at its disposal. 
  • The English pacifist Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), and the French socialist Jean Jaurès (1859–1914), were only two of the many influential voices raised against the growing danger.
  • In an attempt to stem the mill-stream race to war, the Tsar Nicholas II, called the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 ‘to discuss ways to make the world a peaceable kingdom’; the Olympic Games were resumed; a universal language, Esperanto, was introduced; students were exchanged; commerce and travel were encouraged.
  • None of these efforts succeeded; the war clouds grew. Oddest of all, when war came it was not treated as the scourge it proved to be, but as the hope of European civilization. 
  • At the outset idealism prevailed; through sacrifice, the world would be saved. The only fear most European males felt in 1914 is that they might reach the front after the war had ended. 
  • Alas, the war did not end in six weeks, or six months. This time there was to be no repetition of the swift, decisive, military victories obtained by Prussia against Austria in 1866, and against France in 1870.
  • Instead (the Germans having been halted at the Marne outside Paris) the war turned into a deadlock of trench warfare. For three years on the western front the battle line hardly moved.
  • There ensued a seemingly endless, exhausting, dogged struggle similar to some of the drawn-out European wars of the eighteenth century, and the American Civil War of the nineteenth century. 
  • The mobilization of financial, material and human resources was on an unprecedented scale. Government powers and government propaganda grew as never before. 
  • This was war of decimation. Although the eastern had been much more fluid than the western front, the cost to Russia was equally great. After the Russians’ initial success against the Austrians in Galicia and Serbia, which caused Germany troops to be withdrawn from the western front, enormous casualties were inflicted upon them by the Germans at Tannenberg in August 1914. 
  • Another dreadful defeat was inflicted upon them at the Masurian Lakes in September; in great disorder, the tsar’s army was driven back into Russia. 
  • The wonder is that Russia was able to fight as well as it did for three more years. Joined by Bulgaria in 1915, the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians recovered Galicia from the Russians and eliminated Serbia. 
  • The war took the monstrous toll it did because of the revolution in weaponry. The machine-gun, capable of firing 600 bullets a minute, had made defense systems almost impregnable.
  • The war of movement and manoeuvre, in which the military leaders had been trained, had become impracticable. 
  • Moreover, as those giving the orders were ‘château generals’, too far away to witness or be affected by the carnage, the killing was repeated the next day, and the next, and the next, for month after ghastly bloody month. 
  • An adequate battle plan to control mass armies in action had still to be worked out. Marlborough, Washington, Napoleon and Wellington, who had shared the perils of battle with their troops, would never have permitted such endless, pointless killing.
  • Only when widespread mutiny threatened, as it did in 1917, did the politicians order the staff to halt the slaughter. But the killing was soon renewed, with no visible effect on the war.
  • Whereas all the European wars since 1815 had been short and decisive, this war dragged on.
  • In an effort to break the stalemate, everything was tried. In 1915 the Germans used poison gas (outlawed at The Hague Conference of 1907); they also bombed from the air. 
  • The first German Zeppelin raids on Paris and London in 1915 were condemned as barbaric. The British soon stifled their sense of outrage and bombed back again.
  • In an attempt to knock Germany’s ally Turkey out of the war, in April 1915 British, Australian and New Zealand troops made a desperate but disastrous attempt to force the Dardanelles at Gallipoli and seize Constantinople. Early in 1915, under secret negotiations, the Allies persuaded Italy to attack its former ally Austria Hungary, in return for which Italy was promised the Turkish Dodecanese Islands, as well as the southeastern and western coasts of Turkish Asia Minor, and territory in the Middle East. Greek claims to Smyrna and to part of Turkey were to be recognized.
  • In June 1915 Italy attacked Austria-Hungary, but was repulsed. Italy was decisively defeated in October 1917.
  • Under other secret agreements between the Allies – revealed by the Bolsheviks after the Revolution – Russia had been promised Constantinople and parts of Turkish Asia Minor. 
  • The Sykes–Picot Agreement of May 1916 showed that while the Allies were promising the Arabs independence after the war, their true intentions were to enrich themselves at Arab expense.
  • Arab hopes that their revolt against the Turks – which culminated in the destruction of the Turkish Army in the Middle East – would result in a united Arab kingdom with the Sherif of Mecca at its head, were sacrificed to western interests.
  • The Arab world was subsequently divided between Britain and France on terms that suited the western powers.
  • In 1916 Britain introduced compulsory military service. In May of that year the British Navy fought an inconclusive battle with the German Navy off Jutland.
  • In 1917, equally inconclusively, the British attacked at Cambrai on the western front with a new weapon, the ‘tank’.
  • Although it carried with it the risk of bringing America into the war, in February 1917 the Germans again resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare, which had been abandoned after the sinking of a British trans-Atlantic liner the Lusitania in May 1915.
  • By May 1917 the German U-boats were sinking British ships faster than they could be replaced. 
  • In the first three months of that year more than 400 British vessels were sunk, leaving the United Kingdom with only six weeks of food and supplies. Fortunately for Britain, help was on the way.
  • A month earlier (April 1917), following the German announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare (which America claimed was a violation of the rights of neutrals), the US had decided to enter the war, not as an ally but as an associate on the side of the Allies.
  • The pro- Allied sentiment pervading Wilson’s administration had at last openly declared itself; the world’s third greatest navy had entered the fray; two million US volunteers became available.
  • The mobilization and training of the US Army was so painfully slow, however, that a year later, in March 1918 (Germany having forced an armistice upon Russia at the Polish frontier town of Brest- Litovsk), the German General Staff felt it could afford to stake everything on a spring offensive in the West.
  • While American troops crossed the Atlantic, German troops raced westward from the eastern front. 
  • Although the Americans were not committed to battle until the closing stages of the war in 1918, their presence in France in such numbers was decisive. Despite desperate efforts, the German spring offensive (March–July) failed. 
  • With the western front collapsing, the navy mutinying at Kiel in October, and an uprising in Munich in November, Germany was forced to sue for terms. 
  • In conditions of growing disorder, Wilhelm II abdicated. 
  • Instead of the ‘just and lasting peace’, the ‘peace without victory’, that President Wilson had promised, Germany now suffered total humiliation at the Peace Conferences at Paris and Versailles in 1919.
  • Delegates from 27 Allied nations were represented. Russia was occupied with revolution; Germany was not invited except to sign a treaty which it had not negotiated.
  • The ‘big three’, Woodrow Wilson of the United States, Georges Clemenceau (1841– 1929) of France and David Lloyd George (1863–1945) of Britain, dominated the negotiations; Italy and Japan were the other ‘great powers’. Germany was charged with sole guilt for the war.
  • At Versailles, nationalism, vested interests, chicanery and hatred triumphed over Wilson’s vision of a world governed by the rule of law.
  • Wilson retreated to his isolated homeland, which refused to ratify the treaty or become a member of the newly founded League of Nations. Of Wilson’s vision, only the League of Nations remained.
  • It was hoped that a system of collective security would replace a system of special alliances.
  • Germany’s humiliation at Versailles (coupled with the memory of the starving of Germans and Austrians by the Allied blockade after the war had ended) set the stage for the rise of German National Socialism and Adolf Hitler (1889–1945).
  • 1914–18 have come to be recognized as one of the great watersheds in world history. 
  • The bullet that killed the Archduke Ferdinand also helped to kill western supremacy in the world.
  • Nothing equals the First World War in prompting Asians and Africans to rid themselves of European rule.
  • The Europeans could not expect to recruit Africans and Asians to kill Europeans without lowering their own prestige in non- European eyes.
  • Not least, the war remains alive in the memory of the West because of its terrible irony. It began with unbounded idealism; it ended with cynicism and disgust.
  • Despite the sacrifices and all the fine words, the First World War did not prove to be ‘the war to end all wars’; it was presumptive to think that it might. Wars went on.
  • An even greater catastrophe befell the world 20 years later. By then the western world had become callous. 
  • Nor did the war ‘make the world safe for democracy’, a hope born of nineteenth century optimism. Instead, it fostered the rise of revolutionary communism in Russia, fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany. 

Leave a Reply