Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.
H. G. Wells
The Origins of World War One
Ask most people what started World War One and they will reply ‘the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand’. The assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo in June 1914 certainly triggered the events that led to war, but it did not cause them. The causes lay much deeper, in events that had been gradually coming to a head over the previous decades, and which by June of 1914 left Europe like a powder keg waiting for a careless match. The process leading to the outbreak of the Great War could be compared to the process of loading and firing a rifle. This involves four steps; loading the weapon, cocking the weapon, removing the safety catch, and finally pulling the trigger. These four steps are analogous to the four processes that led to war; shifting imperial rivalries and alliances, the Naval arms race, war plans and mobilization, and finally the assassination of the archduke.
1. Loading the Weapon – Shifting Imperial Rivalries and Alliances.
In Jan 1871, in the Great Hall in the Palace of Versailles, one of the most sudden and radical transformation ever in the European balance of power occurred when the united state of Germany was proclaimed for the first time. What had previously been a disparate collection of independent states now became the German Empire, the largest and most powerful state in Europe. The project was the culmination of nearly a decade of planning by one of history’s greatest statesmen; Otto Von Bismarck.
Before 1871, what would later become Germany was a loose collection of independent states; principalities, duchies, grand-duchies, etc, nearly 50 in all. While all saw themselves as German, all jealously guarded their independence. Many had previously been aligned in various confederations or political unions, such as Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine, but a single, unified German state had never existed. The largest and most powerful of these states was the Kingdom of Prussia, and when Bismarck was appointed Chancellor of Prussia in 1862 his overriding ambition was to unite the German states under Prussian leadership. His schemes came to fruition in 1870, when he in effect tricked France into declaring war on Prussia. Bismarck pounced, and within 6 weeks the Prussian army was laying siege to Paris. The war had the desired effect as the smaller German states rushed to place themselves under Prussia's protection. From there it was a simple process for the master statesman to negotiate a political union, and on the 18th Jan 1871, with the siege of Paris still in progress, King Wilhelm II of Prussia was proclaimed Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm I of Germany, with Bismarck appointed as the first chancellor of the united kingdom.
It is unfortunate that Bismarck has come to be seen as an aggressive and militaristic figure. It was true that he had no compunction in resorting to war to achieve his goals, but he always saw war as a limited means to an end, a tool to be used when the circumstances needed it. Once used, it was to be put away again as quickly as possible. And so Bismarck was to dedicate the remainder of his political career to maintaining peace in Europe, and his years as Chancellor were characterised by continued efforts to rein in impetuous hotheads in the military and ruling class. This was because Bismarck realised what they did not; that Germany’s greatest weakness was its own huge strength. Because unless Germany was very careful about the way it used its strength it could very easily frighten other countries into forming an alliance against it, and no matter how powerful a state is, it will always require allies.
The world was now dominated by five superpowers; the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the French Empire, (despite their recent defeat), the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the new German Empire. Bismarck knew that these five would always split 3-2 in their alliances, and Germany absolutely had to be on the ‘3’ side of the 3-2 split, because no alliance of any two could hope to defeat an alliance of the other three. Bismarck’s considerable talents were therefore directed towards putting Germany into an alliance with two of the other empires. This would make Germany’s position unassailable, and thus make war in Europe impossible.
The results of Bismarck’s efforts was the creation in Oct 1873 of the Dreikaiserbund, the League of Three Emperors, a mutual defence and non-aggression alliance between Germany, Russia and Austria. Britain remained outside the alliance, but looked favourably on the new Germany. France was now isolated and impotent.
But there were dark clouds on the horizon. One was the burning issue of the French province of Alsace-Lorraine, which Germany had annexed at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. Bismarck had been opposed to the annexation, as he had wanted a clean end to the war, with no unresolved issues that might smoulder in the background to cause later problems. This was precisely what happened with Alsace-Lorraine, which was to provide the French with a focus for their rage and resentment. It would ensure that the bitterness felt over the defeat in 1871 would never die away, and left France thirsting for La Revanche.
Another problem was containing the hotheads among the military aristocracy. None more problematic than the incompetent but impetuous, (a bad combination), heir to the throne, Wilhelm I’s grandson, the soon-to-be Wilhelm II. The younger Wilhelm represented that faction of the ruling class that was impatient with Bismarck’s careful and cautious diplomacy. What need did Germany have for such alliances? Why all the slow and careful manoeuvring? Germany was powerful enough to demand its rightful place in the club of the great empires, and should have no compunction about doing so.
The old Kaiser was no brain surgeon either, but he had one saving grace; he realised it. He trusted Bismarck implicitly, and had been happy to sit back and give him a free hand. Not so his grandson, who in addition to harbouring illusions of competence, deeply resented Bismarck's status and power.
On the 09th March 1888 the old Kaiser died. He was succeeded by the young Wilhelm, who took the title Kaiser Wilhelm II. He lost no time in isolating and undermining Bismarck, and forced him to resign in 1890.
The outside world was aghast that the young Emperor would so willingly do without the guidance of the man that was widely regarded as the greatest statesman of his age. Gone now was the careful and thoughtful diplomatic machinations of the master-statesman, to be replaced by the rule of the vain, incompetent, emotional and ambitious Wilhelm. He quickly committed a series of wholly avoidable diplomatic blunders.
At the height of the Boer War he sent the Boer leader a personal telegram congratulating him on a major raid against British forces, needlessly alienating British opinion. When the German ambassador to China was assassinated during the Boxer rebellion Wilhelm sent a contingent of German soldiers to extract revenge, telling them in a speech that the normal rules of warfare did not apply, and they were to behave like ‘Huns’. The phrase was to come back to haunt Germany in later years.
But perhaps his greatest blunder was his failure to renew the treaty with Russia when it lapsed in 1893. Russia had always been fearful of Germany’s eastward ambitions, but their fears had been allayed by the wily Bismarck. His big worry had been that a frightened Russian would turn to France, the only other potential ally in Europe, and form an alliance with her, thus surrounding Germany. Wilhelm’s blundering had reawakened Russia's fears, and when he failed to renew their non-aggression treaty Russia did what Bismarck had always feared they would, and formed a mutual defence alliance with France.
The diplomatic map had now changed radically, and Germany was now on the wrong side of the 3-2 split. Germany had a mutual defence alliance with Austria, in which each was obliged to come to the assistance of the other if attacked. But this was her only major ally. Russia and France were now in a mutual defence alliance, in which each was pledged to come to aid of the other if threatened by Germany or Austria.
2. Cocking the Weapon – The Naval Arms Race.
By 1900 the Royal Navy was by far the most powerful in the world, but naval superiority was a subject of concern bordering on paranoia for the British establishment. Control of Britain's overseas empire rested totally on its continued control of the high seas. Britain was entirely dependent on imports from its empire, not just to keep its mighty industrial machine turning, but actually to feed its population. Losing control of the high seas meant losing control of its empire, and perhaps even starvation.
Bismarck had been very aware of how sensitive this issue was, and had wisely given the subject a wide berth (pardon the naval pun). Resources had been poured into the army instead. Britain was safe behind the English channel, and could view these developments with indifference. But the young Kaiser wanted and empire, and this meant developing a navy. Even with its industrial might Germany could never hope to out-produce the Royal Navy. It lacked Britain's long naval tradition, not to mention its vast ship-building capacity.
The Royal Navy already had a huge lead, (in 1850 one out of every 8 ships afloat anywhere in the world was British), and so Germany was bound to lose any naval arms race. But one recent development had altered the picture. This was the launch in 1906 of a ship that utterly transformed the design and development of warships; HMS Dreadnought. It was a huge leap in naval warfare technology. It was vastly better armoured, better armed and faster than anything afloat. Its huge guns could destroy any ship well before it got within range to fire back, and even if it did no other ship carried sufficient firepower to penetrate Dreadnought’s armour. So radical was it that all subsequent battleships were built to the same design, and all became known collectively as dreadnoughts.
Although it was the Royal Navy that had launched the Dreadnought, it presented them with a dilemma. It had rendered all other battleships obsolete or obsolescent, and had thus at a stroke wiped out the vast superiority that the Royal Navy had enjoyed.
This superiority was in ships that were now obsolete; from now on all that mattered were dreadnoughts.
Germany now had a chance. In terms of dreadnoughts both she and Britain were starting from the same baseline. If Germany could concentrate on the production of dreadnoughts and nothing else, it might have a chance to match the mighty Royal Navy.
This was coupled with what was jknown as the risk strategy, developed by the Commander in Chief of the German Imperial Navy, Admiral Tirpitz. British naval planning was based on the two-power standard; it must be powerful enough to fight a major naval campaign against its two largest rivals, and still have enough capacity to police the high seas. In 1900 its main rivals were France and Russia. Thus, Tirpitz reasoned, the German Navy did not have to be as large as the Royal Navy in absolute terms, just large enough for Britain not to be able to risk an engagement with Germany, for fear of weakening itself in respect of France and Russia.
There was one glaring flaw in this reasoning; it ignored the simplest solution that was available to Britain to avoid this risk; an alliance with France and Russia. The fear of growing German naval power was a major factor in the signing of the entente cordiale in 1904, and was followed three years later by the signing of a similar pact with Russia. With the threat from these two former rivals removed, the Royal Navy was free to devote all its attention to Germany. The Kaiser was now faced with a simple choice; abandon his plans to force concessions from the British with a smaller naval force, or go all out to out-build the Royal Navy. He chose the latter.
German naval expansion was a source of huge concern for the British establishment. German naval power was concentrated, British power dispersed. The Royal Navy was widely scattered, policing British power across the globe.
German strategy was designed to put them in a position to force concessions from the British, not to actually go to war. It seems clear now that the German leadership wanted to intimidate, not defeat, the Royal Navy. The aim thus became to build a fleet of German dreadnoughts greater in number than the dreadnoughts in the British Home Fleet. If they could do this Britain would be faced with three options; abandon its control of the Mediterranean to reinforce the Home Fleet, face the risk of naval blockade, or back down and trade colonies for security.
Thus began the naval arms race, as both governments passed new laws and raised new taxes in an increasingly bitter and acrimonious attempt to out-produce each other. Each new German launch and each new announcement of production targets was greeted with near hysteria in Britain, and ever louder demands to increase production. The mood was summed up by Churchill’s remark in his memoirs; ‘the Admiralty demanded eight [dreadnoughts], the Treasury were prepared to accept six, so we compromised and built 12’.
To bolster support for the increased taxes needed to pay for these expensive beasts, a propaganda avalanche was unleashed on the public of both countries, but especially of Britain. Here the anti-German propaganda achieved unprecedented levels of bitterness and viciousness. Germany was portrayed as a grasping monster, bent on world domination. The propaganda was deeply racist and xenophobic, and led to levels of hostility in both populations that made any diplomatic solution much harder to find.
There were several attempts to find such a solution, and to agree a diplomatic way out of the growing crisis. All foundered on the British insistence on securing a 3:2 ratio in dreadnoughts with Germany, which Germany saw as an unacceptable infringement of its sovereignty. German naval production broke no law and violated no treaty. There was no law that said that the British had a right to have a navy that was larger than anyone else, or had a right to rule the high seas.
Germany was prepared to accept such limitations however, but at a price. Britain would give up its alliance with France and sign a non-aggression pact with Germany. This Britain would not do, as it wanted to retain the right to intervene in the event of a German attack on France. The talks failed, and each side went home to portray the other as unreasonable and war-mongering.
To the British, the German refusal to compromise was proof of their aggressive intent. To the Germans, Britain's refusal to sign a non-aggression treaty, and its attempts to dictate what it could do with its own navy, were proof of its desire to weaken and humiliate Germany. In the end Britain ‘won’ the naval arms race. It entered World War One with 20 dreadnoughts and battle-cruisers, as opposed to Germany’s 17. But the real importance of the arms race was not the amount of ships it produced, but in the way it brought Anglo-German relations to an unprecedented level of mutual hostility, fear and suspicion.
3. Removing the Safety Catch – War Plans and Mobilisation.
It is often said that generals are always re-fighting the last war. This is because in the wake of every major conflict the leadership of each army sets out to analyse it, and see what lessons can be learned. In 1900 the last major conflict in Europe had been the Franco-Prussian war, and when the leadership of the major European powers examined it they all reached the same conclusion; mobilisation was the key.
It is important to understand exactly what mobilisation involved. It was not simply cancelling leave and calling up reserves. It was a process whereby the entire resources of a nation; human, industrial, economic, agricultural, were transformed as rapidly as possible on to a war footing. Mobilisation, once started, was very difficult to halt, and very apt to develop a momentum of its own. Mobilisation in one country would lead inevitably to mobilisation in another, setting in motion a cascade effect. It was like removing the handbrake on a truck parked on a hill. Once it started rolling it would be almost impossible to stop.
The system of mobilisation was most developed in Germany, and gives a good idea of how elaborate such plans were.
4. Pulling the Trigger – The July Crisis.
In 1878, under the direction of the master-statesman Bismarck, Serbia was established as an independent kingdom. At the same time, and in order to maintain the delicate balance between different European powers, Bosnia-Herzegovina was declared to be a semi-autonomous province, nominally still part of the Turkish empire, but to be occupied and administered by Austria. The Serbs were bitterly disappointed, seeing Bosnia as a vital part of a unified Serb kingdom, and from the start Austrian rule in Bosnia was bedevilled by the activities of Serb nationalists, which the Austrians believed were being backed and directed by the Serbian government.
In 1908 Austria, fearing that the new government in Turkey might re-assert its claim to Bosnia, annexed the province. The Serb government, who had held out the hope of reunification so long as the status of the province remained ambiguous, were outraged. The activities of Serb nationalists in Bosnia increased, and now included a campaign of violence directed against the Austrian administration. Serbia had the strong backing of Russia, both because of the ethnic links between the two, but also because Russia had long sought an excuse to expand into the Balkans and thus achieve one of its main long-term aims; the acquisition of warm water ports in the Mediterranean. I
n June 1914 the heir to the Austrian throne; the Archduke Ferdinand, undertook a formal visit to Bosnia to underline Austrian authority there. But on the 28th June 1914, as the Archduke and his wife toured Sarajevo in an open-topped car, a young Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip sprang forward and fired on them with a handgun, killing both.
The assassination sent shock waves around Europe. Ferdinand was heir to the Austrian throne and a member of the Habsburg family, one of Europe's oldest royal houses. There was universal condemnation of the attack, and deep concern about how Austria would react. To try to get a sense of the degree of shock, imagine the Prince and Princess of Wales had visited Belfast in 1922 to underline British rule there, and both were shot dead by an IRA man.
Austria was quick to accuse the government of Serbia of being behind the attack. There had been murky links between the Serb security services and different Bosnian-Serb nationalist movements in the past, but most historians are of the opinion that the Austrian accusations were groundless. But the Austrians were in no mood for calm reflection, and many in the military saw this as an ideal opportunity to put an end to Serb interference once and for all.
I twas clear that any Austrian move against Serbia ran the risk of provoking a response from Russia, and so the Austrians decided that they had better reassure themselves of German support first. Thus on the 05th July a delegation was sent to Berlin to meet with the Kaiser, to confirm that Germany would stand by its treaty obligations.
There they got what amounted to a blank cheque, a solid and unequivocal guarantee that Germany would stand by Austria regardless of the consequences. This move has often been interpreted as evidence of warmongering on the part of the Germans, as an indication that the Kaiser was spoiling for a fight, but the opposite is more likely to be the case.
By now the Kaiser was becoming alarmed at the rising tensions in Europe.The system of mutual defence alliances meant that if any one of the parties threatened another, the system of inter-locking treaties could kick in and quickly precipitate a general conflagration. Germany was convinced that Russia would not risk war with Germany and Austria together, and thus a German guarantee to Austria would avoid any conflict with Russia. The guarantee had to be strong and unequivocal, lest Russia see any hesitation as a sign of weakness. Seen from perspective, the German blank cheque was an attempt to avoid war, not provoke it.
Having reassured themselves of German support the Austrians were now ready to act. On the 23rd July they issued the Serb government with a list of ten demands, effectively amounting to the complete suppression of the Serb nationalist movement, and gave them 48 hrs to reply. Russia announced that it would not allow the humiliation of Serbia, and began plans for mobilisation.
Serbia accepted eight of the ten demands, and asked for negotiations on the other two, but the Austrians were in no mood to compromise. On the 25th they broke off negotiations and announced plans for a partial mobilisation, to allow for an Austrian attack on Serbia on or after the 10th August. The German High Command were appalled at the foot-dragging. If Austria was going to attack Serbia it had to be done quickly, before the Russians had time to mobilise and intervene. A quick Austrian victory, (which everyone expected), would mean the crisis would be done and dusted before Russia was in a position to respond.
By now the Kaiser was becoming increasingly worried about the direction events were taking. His guarantee to Austria was not having the intended effect of dissuading Russia, and there were signs that Britain was prepared to become involved also. Thus on the 27th July he wrote to the Austrian government and urged them to accept the Serbian compromise and enter into negotiations. He also stated in the letter that he felt war with Serbia was not now necessary. Crucially however the letter was not delivered until the 28th, after Austria had declared war, and the sentence declaring the Kaiser's belief that war was not necessary was omitted, (why has never been satisfactorily explained). Meanwhile Germany contacted the British government, and tried to assure them that they had no intention of occupying any French or Belgian territory, to try to ensure British neutrality. The overtures were tersely rejected.
On the 28th July the Tzar had ordered a partial mobilisation, confined to Russia’s southern borders only, intended to allow them to attack Austria in defence of the Serbs, but not provoke Germany into mobilising its forces. But the Tsar’s generals argued that it was madness to leave their western borders unprepared, and so on the 29th the Tzar changed the order to one for general mobilisation. Under the terms of the Austro-German alliance such a move required Germany to mobilise in response, and in turn a German mobilisation required France to mobilise in support of Russia, under the terms of the Franco-Russian alliance. The situation was spiralling out of control.
An alarmed Kaiser sent the Tzar an urgent telegram pointing out the dangerous situation they were sliding into, and appealing to him to cancel his mobilisation order. The next day (30th July), the Tzar agreed and cancelled the order for general mobilisation, returning to a partial mobilisation instead. But he now came under pressure from his generals, who pointed out that Russia always needed longer to mobilise than Germany, and later that evening he did a U-turn and reissued the order for general mobilisation.
Meanwhile France began its own moves towards mobilisation in anticipation of conflict between Germany and Russia. On learning of this the Kaiser proclaimed a state of imminent war, (the last step before general mobilisation), and the next day, the 31st, issued separate ultimatums to Paris and Moscow, demanding that both cease their preparations for war. At 1655hrs the next day, the 01st August, the French issued an order for general mobilisation. Russia had failed to respond to the ultimatum, and so five minutes later the Kaiser ordered German mobilisation.
All four countries were now committed to war. A balanced assessment of events would support the argument that the Kaiser had tried to avoid this war, but now that war was inevitable the priority became moving fast and winning it. The Kaiser now gave orders for the implementation of the Schlieffen plan; a rapid thrust through Belgium to outflank the French forces deployed along the border with Germany.
Belgium had ordered a general mobilisation on July 31st, and on Aug 02nd received Germany’s ultimatum. Claiming incorrectly that French troops had crossed the southern border Germany demanded the right to enter Belgian territory to eject them, with a refusal being taken as an act of war. At 0700hrs on 03rd the Belgian gov delivered their rejection of the ultimatum, then proceeded to destroy road and rail bridges and tunnels along their border. German forces invaded the country the next morning. So the system of interlocking treaties had turned a crisis into a war, and although no treaty had actually been invoked, fear of being out-mobilised by the other side had led to a mad dash to prepare for war once the initial step had been taken.
Britain alone was not bound by any treaty commitment, but was anxious to prevent a German victory. When German troops entered Belgium on the morning of the 04th August the British government issued an ultimatum, demanding an immediate German withdrawal. When the deadline of midnight that day passed without reply Britain declared war on Germany. When the war was over and a horrified world surveyed the sickening scale of the slaughter , governments were anxious to show that they had been dragged unwillingly into a war they had done everything in their power to avoid. Britain cited the half-forgotten Treaty of London as its excuse, claiming that it obliged them to enter the war to defend Belgium.
Article 7: Belgium to Form an Independent and Neutral State
Belgium, within the limits specified in Articles 1, 2, and 4, shall form an Independent and perpetually Neutral State.
It shall be bound to observe such Neutrality towards all other States.
The wording of the crucial article of the Treaty of London.
However, it is difficult to sustain this interpretation. The Treaty of London was an agreement drawn up in 1839 between the major European powers on the status of Belgium, which had just liberated itself from Dutch rule. Britain was anxious to ensure that Belgium remained neutral, fearing it might align itself with France and upset the European balance of power. Article VII of the treaty therefore required Belgium to remain neutral. But the treaty placed no obligation on any power to defend Belgium in the event of an attack, and indeed was intended to constrain Belgian actions, not those of other powers.
When the war was over Germany was required to accept sole responsibility for having started it, causing a deep resentment that Hitler was later to exploit to gain power. Looking calmly at the facts, Germany’s sense of resentment may have been justified. The system of interlocking treaties had dragged Europe to war, but someone had to blow the starting whistle, someone had to remove the hand-brake from the truck. All four belligerents have questions to answer in this regard.
Austria took an aggressive stance on Serbia, despite the risk of conflict with Russia. Russia ordered a general mobilisation, knowing this would force Germany to do likewise. France had been persistently pressuring Russia to mobilise, both because it feared having to face Germany alone, but also because it wanted war, believing that allied with Britain and Russia it would achieve a quick victory and revenge for 1871. Finally Britain had voluntarily entered a war it was not required to participate in, and where it had not been directly threatened.
The Kaiser had tried to halt the slide to war. He had written to the Austrians appealing for compromise with Serbia, and had sent an urgent telegram to the Tzar appealing for him to reverse his decision to mobilise. This is not to say that the Kaiser was blameless. His aggressive blundering had done much to put the four powers in the tense position they were in by 1914, and his attempts to avoid the slide towards war were motivated by concerns that the odds were stacked against Germany, not by any principled objection to war itself. But the common view that Germany alone started the war is both simplistic and misleading.
It is also misleading to say that the Great War was fought for democracy and the rights of small nations. All four powers entered the war motivated by narrow self interest. Britain wanted to curtail German power and maintain its control of the high seas. France wanted to re-establish itself as Europe’s pre-eminent land power, and avenge its defeat in 1871. Germany wanted to carve out an empire in eastern Europe, and force Britain to accept its creation of an overseas empire, and finally Russia wanted to remove Austria as an imperial rival and expand its power into the Balkans, giving it access to warm water ports. The Great War was not fought for democracy and the rights of small nations. it was fought for imperialism and the rights of great empires.
Perhaps nothing symbolises the futility of the Great War than the fate of the ship that helped launch it. HMS Dreadnought was obsolete by the time the war began. It was confined to coastal patrols for the duration, and never fired its guns in anger.