Sunday, 3 March 2013

World War One: How It Started


Going into the first world war, despite the fact that the European powers had been prepared for this war   for decades, the various nations did not have an idea of what to expect.  They certainly did not know that it would be the downfall of several hegemonies and segue them into a new mind set of war.

However the conflict was foreshadowed several times before the empires of Europe actually went to war as they fought for resources and power.  During the Franco-Prussian War the Germans established themselves as an imperial power but also a modernized one.

This through off the balance that had previously existed between the west and east, the Russians and French now had a modern and powerful enemy between them rather than several buffer states.  And now their way of thinking changed, they chose safety in numbers and an alliance was inevitable.

The German Empire promoted militarism and nationalism, both great tools and ordinary for their time but combined they led to an arm's race between nations.  Here we see the beginning of the arm's race to develop dreadnoughts (battleships) between Germany and England who had the Royal Navy at its disposal, the largest navy in the world at the time.  Thanks to nationalism, war became a way for nations to prove to the world that they were the best, it became like a competition.  They knew that they  couldn't survive alone so they planned against the Germans, joining the Russians and French in what was known as the Triple Entente as of its formation in 1907.

The Ottoman Empire was on the other end of their life cycle, they had begun to decline, Greece declared independence in 1822, the Crimean War of 1853 saw how backward their military really was, and soon their European territory was gaining independence or being occupied by other nations, Romania in 1862 became independent, in 1878 we see Serbian independence, Bosnia being turned over to Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria becoming an autonomous protectorate of the Ottomans, and the British occupation of Cyprus, in 1912 the First Balkan War leads to the near complete expulsion of Ottomans from Europe.  This saw a lot of young states with unstable positions in the world they were born into, and a dying empire desperate to remain relevant in the modern world.  After several wars with Russia they were not about to join the alliance that had formed between France, Britain, and Russia.  And part way into the first world war they would join the central powers, who were Austria-Hungary and Germany.

The former Ottoman balkans chose sides that were best for them, Serbia and their slavic brothers in Russia were in alliance while Bulgaria chose to side with their historical allies the Ottomans (Bosnians although under Austria-Hungarian rule, were on the side of the Serbians).

The alliances and the dates of their formation.  These alliances were often ignored if they went against a country's interests but they were still fairly important leading into the First World War.

The Triple Alliance formed in 1882 under the leadership of Otto van Bismarck of Germany who wanted to prevent a two-front war if Germany ever went to war with France.  A valid consideration and unfortunately for Germany the war with Russia and France put considerable pressure on two fronts, exactly what they were trying to avoid.  In fact Hitler went to considerable pains to ensure the same wouldn't happen to him.  The alliance was however far more unnatural than the triple entente and this eventually led to the alliance becoming the Central Powers, which was an alliance between
Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire.

The Road to War

The European continent may have been extremely volatile but in practice the European powers were good at keeping the status quo intact.  They knew the lines they could and couldn't cross for the most part.  Despite this war was expected any time in the 1910s by both sides although the exact circumstances were anybody's guess, even if a lot of people were guessing it would start in the balkans.

The spark that started the war was in the capital of occupied Bosnia and this is where we meet the terror group Black Hand ("Unification or Death" was their actual name, but they are most commonly known as the Black Hand).  The Black Hand supported the unification of Serbia and Bosnia into one country as part of an eventual goal of a Pan-Slavic Union.  It follows therefore that the forces of Austria-Hungary that were occupying Bosnia were their enemy.

The prince of Austria-Hungary was Franz Ferdinand and he was a very revolutionary leader, he planned to make Austria-Hungary far more democratic and to give power to the Serbians in Austria-Hungary.  This would have taken a lot of wind out of the sales of the terrorists who relied on the image of Austria-Hungary as a great power with nothing but malintent for the Bosnian and other slavic subjects under their rule.  So when the prince toured Sarajevo with his wife the Black Hand did what they thought best for their movement and attempted to assassinate the prince.

Although an assassination attempt failed one of the prince's guards was hospitalized and before the prince returned to friendlier territory he chose to visit the man who had risked their life for him.  The visit would never happen because on the way quite by accident they crossed paths with a Serbian terrorist who shot and killed Franz Ferdinand and his wife.  This was shocking to Austria-Hungary but even yet a world war was not inevitable.  Austria-Hungary issued a list of demands to Serbia.  Serbia chose to comply with all but one of the demands.  The Austrians planned now to invade Serbia but were worried that invading Serbia would provoke Russia.

So the Austrians sent word to the German Kaiser about their plans to see if they would have support if they went ahead with it.  The Kaiser thought they wouldn't be insane enough to go ahead with it and offered up complete support for whatever course of action the Austrians chose.  The Austrians to the great surprise of Germany invaded Serbia (well, tried...).  The Russians began mobilizing their reserves to prepare for war which the Russians expected was coming because they believed the Austrians wouldn't act without German support.

The Germans expected that they now had 6 weeks before the Russian army was prepared for war, and they saw the possibility for disaster in their future.  They didn't want to fight a two front war against France and Russia so they acted quickly under the Schlieffen plan and declared war on France hoping to take them out quick enough to finish them off before the Russians could bring their full force down against the Germans and Austrians.  The fastest way to invade France was through the neutral country of Belgium and so the Germans invaded Belgium and began their invasion of France.

This is where the British stepped in...

Surprisingly accurate.

The British had signed a treaty recognizing the neutrality of Belgium and immediately began planning the liberation of Belgium from Germany.  To the surprise of the Russians and the Germans, the Russian forces mobilized in two weeks.  The war to end all wars had begun.


  1. Can I be brutal and call "um... not quite" on some of this article?

    The Austrians would not proceed with war with Serbia, fearing Russian intervention, and asked if they could get German support. Kaiser Wilhelm's response was "whatever you do, do it quickly". Because the German High Command had agreed, in 1912 at Hossbach, that they had to take the next opportunity to go to war. German military planners expected Russian military reforms after the 1905 Russo-Japanese War to create a modern and effective army by 1917. In the words of Bethmann-Hollweg "the spectre of Russian military supremacy lies on us like a nightmare".

    Everyone was expecting the Austro-Hungarians to invade Serbia. Germany *knew* it would happen.

    The 1905 Schlieffen Plan was adopted as the only military plan in 1912 too. This meant that even though the crisis in August 1914 centred on Russia, the Germans would declare war on France. Belgium wasn't so much the 'fastest way' into France as it was *a* way into France. German military planners expected the French to launch their own invasion of Germany to recapture Alsace-Lorraine, which they expected to succeed too, so they would loop round the back and capture Paris, knocking France out of the war and allowing them to concentrate on Russia. Keep in mind that Germany had also signed a treaty about Belgian neutrality in 1897 but considered it invalid by 1912 after Belgian support for Britain and France in the *Panther* incident (that's not it's full name, damn...).

    Perfidious Albion, a myth you refer to, was nonsense. In 1906 Britain launched the HMS Dreadnought and entered a naval arms race with Germany. We won, in 1912, but the upshot was that British military and political planners decided that any future war would pit Britain against Germany.

    So it was, in 1914, that the British were already preparing war against Germany and used the invasion of Belgium as a *pretext* for war and a means of selling it to the population (no one expected the wave of patriotism that swept Europe in August 1914). In other words, Britain's monocled eye had been on Germany for seven years at least by the start of the August Crisis.

    The Germans reckoned on six WEEKS (not months) before Russian mobilisation but were surprised when it took just TWO. Mind you, the Schlieffen Plan was unworkable anyway. Even with the French Plan XVII playing right into German military planners' hands. By the way, the Russian military planners reckoned on six weeks too, but were taken aback by the quality of their own rail network. General Prittwitz, German commander of the forces in East Prussia, soiled his pants when he realised that the Russians were coming - if that's not comic gold I don't kn ow what is.

    Sorry, am a First World War geek.


    1. Feel free to be as brutal as you want to be, when I get my facts wrong please call me on it... and it seems like I got a lot wrong. I find the subject interesting so I wanted to see if I could write about it, and of course I'm going to miss some things.

      I'll see if I can make an itemized list:

      1. Kaiser's attitude to Austrian invasion of Serbia.

      I think this perspective sounds realistic, but may I ask for sources, I quick search doesn't find anything saying that although I'm probably just searching in the wrong places.

      2. Whether or not it was a surprise when the Austrians went ahead with it.

      If you are right about 1 then you are right about 2. So same thing.

      3. It was one way into France that they chose.

      As I understand it Germany, Poland, Russia, Belgium, and France all lay on the European Plain, and Belgium therefore offered an easier route that would take them straight to the core of France. Perhaps I'm wrong but I'm not really sure what you are saying here so I'll let you respond.

      4. Perfidious albion.

      "Traitorous Britain", I'm not certain how you are connecting this to the rest of that paragraph, but I'm assuming that it has something to do with the fact I said Britain doesn't care about treaties? Or was it something else I said, the info I can find on it doesn't seem to connect it to the arm's race?

      5. Arm's Race.

      Okay, so you're saying that already by ww1 the British had shown themselves to be superior at sea (true, the royal navy was the finest in the world), and that the Germans had only shown themselves to be dangerous to British interests, and therefore they planned to go to war with them? I don't think this necessarily competes with my point although I might want to change the language, I'm not so much talking about a legitimate arm's race (as in for every boat they make we'll make 2 of our own!), as the general concept of trying to improve their navy to be as effective as possible to compete with their opponent.

      6. British motive for invading Germany.

      I understand but could you perhaps go into some more detail on this sentence:
      "but the upshot was that British military and political planners decided that any future war would pit Britain against Germany."

      7. Russian Mobilization.

      I concede, I'll edit the post now.