First World War: What sparked the outbreak of war against Germany in1914?

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Austrian throne

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Austrian throne - Credit: Archant

In our first commemorative feature, looking back at the tragedy and heroism of the First World War, University Campus Suffolk history lecturer Dr Edward Packard gives us an overview of why the war started and what happened.

Vladimir lenin

Vladimir lenin - Credit: Archant

During an official visit to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was shot and killed. The young assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a member of a terrorist group with links to Serbia. He pulled the trigger in the hope that his actions would help to secure Bosnian independence from the waning Austro-Hungarian empire.

Austraila infantrymen wearing respirators

Austraila infantrymen wearing respirators - Credit: Archant

One month later, on July 28, in a heavy-handed attempt to crush the dangerous nationalist menace on its southern borders, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

The Big Four at the Paris peace conference in May, 1919

The Big Four at the Paris peace conference in May, 1919 - Credit: Archant

The conflict did not remain localised and within a week the major powers of Europe were at war. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” said Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, as he watched dusk fall over St James’s Park on August 3. “We shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

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ghghh - Credit: Archant

How did an Austro-Serb quarrel in the Balkans escalate into a global war that lasted 52 months, killed ten million people and mutilated twice as many?


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Historians have written thousands of pages on the war’s origins. Most agree that the assassination catalysed a wide range of pre-existing European tensions. In particular, the unification of Germany in 1871 created an economically powerful and militaristic nation-state in the heart of the continent which, after 1888, was led by the hot-headed young Kaiser Wilhelm II. Whether he should bear primary responsibility for the outbreak of the war is still open to debate but it is fairly clear that the emergence of Germany upset the delicate “Concert of Europe“ which had maintained the long peace since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.

The Kaiser’s ambitious imperial objectives challenged the status quo. His desire for “a place in the sun” provoked Britain, who possessed the world’s largest empire and navy. The French, meanwhile, looked warily across their eastern border, fearful of German strength.

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Such concerns were reflected in increased defence spending across the continent and the emergence of rival alliance blocs. Germany, Austria and Italy formed the “Triple Alliance”, while Britain, France and Russia comprised the “Triple Entente”.

The alliances influenced military planning. For instance, the infamous Schlieffen Plan provided Germany with an apparently ingenious solution to its encirclement by the entente powers. To avoid fighting a potentially disastrous war on two fronts, the plan directed the bulk of German forces to invade France, via neutral Belgium, on the outbreak of hostilities. German military planners anticipated a quick victory, which would enable the army to march east and defeat the Russians.

On paper it might have made some sense. In the volatile summer of 1914 its rigid logic proved fatal, especially as there was no Plan B.

Russia, the traditional protector of the Balkan Slavs and, like Austria, a declining imperial force, could not stand by while the Austrians bullied Serbia. Tsar Nicholas II therefore began to mobilise his armies at the end of July.

Germany chose to support Austria – its only true ally – and launched the Schlieffen Plan on August 1. War between Austria, Germany, France and Russia was now inescapable.

Italy, weak and vulnerable, opted for neutrality. The British Government, although initially preoccupied with disturbances in Ireland, chose to assist France and protect Belgian neutrality. At 11pm GMT on August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany.

The stalemate

Many people, although not all, reacted enthusiastically to the outbreak of war. Cheering crowds converged on Trafalgar Square, while a famous photograph of the Odeonsplatz in Munich allegedly shows a young and jubilant Adolf Hitler amid a sea of people.

Across Europe, political parties set aside their differences in a patriotic “truce”. Most felt the war would be over quickly: “You will be home before the leaves fall”, declared the Kaiser to his troops. Indeed, the prevailing “short war illusion” probably contributed to the war’s outbreak in the first place. Few imagined a lengthy stalemate or the industrial-scale carnage that followed.

The stalemate had three components. First, neither side was able to force a decisive military victory on the battlefield, despite initial rapid German advances. The huge armies mobilised by each side ultimately cancelled each other out. Using barbed wire, magazine-fed rifles and machine guns, the defender held the advantage over the attacker.

The notorious attritional trench warfare of the Western Front provided the most graphic illustration of this reality. Hundreds of thousands of men were slaughtered for little strategic gain at battles such as Passchendaele, Verdun and the Somme.

On July 1, 1916, the first day on the Somme, the British Army suffered an unprecedented 60,000 casualties, with 20,000 killed.

Both sides tried to break the deadlock through a quest for new allies and this helped expand the war into Asia and Africa.

For example, the central powers (Germany and Austria) were joined by the Ottoman Empire in October, 1914. In turn, the expanding war provided opportunities to open up new fronts, such as the unsuccessful Gallipoli campaign in 1915, where 36,000 ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and British forces were killed in vicious attritional fighting against the Turkish army.

New weapons were also used but they did not prove war winners. The Germans introduced gas warfare in 1916, while the British pioneered the use of tanks. Yet the early tanks were prone to breaking down and only began to make a difference towards the end of the war: like aircraft, their time would come in the 1939-1945 sequel.

While the war at sea had its moments – such as at Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and, most famously, Jutland in the North Sea – there were no truly decisive naval battles.

The naval war was characterised by blockade – an attempt, literally, to starve the enemy’s population and industry. The Royal Navy blockaded Germany, while German U-boats prowled the North Sea, Mediterranean and Atlantic in search of merchant ships bound for the British Isles.

The second element of the stalemate was the failure of the combatant powers to negotiate a compromise peace. Partly this was because each country developed incompatible war aims.

As the fighting went on, the European powers began to covet various pieces of their enemies’ territory or imperial possessions. Italy, for example, joined the entente powers in 1915, based on the promise of Austrian land. Fundamentally, however, as the death toll mounted, both politicians and public opinion in each country became less willing to accept anything less than total victory in order to justify the sacrifice. The “home front” in each combatant nation therefore remained strong, despite privations and socio-economic dislocation.

This provided the final component of the stalemate and also indicated that “total war” had arrived in Europe.

The Great War did not only involve fighting battles but also required organisation and production on a vast scale. Such an effort necessitated the mobilisation of the entire population – including women – and blurred the boundaries between soldiers and civilians.

In Britain, the Government had to intervene in social and economic life to an unprecedented degree and its shift away from the classical liberal laissez-faire tradition remains with us in the perennial debate about the state’s role in our daily lives.

The shifting balance

In 1917 the collapse of Imperial Russia and the entrance of the United States of America into the war dramatically ended the stalemate.

Of all the combatant powers, Russia was least equipped to deal with the enormous pressures of total war, with its archaic Tsarist administration and backwards economy. Its poor performance fostered huge amounts of popular discontent and the February Revolution swept away the Romanov dynasty.

However, the new provisional government made the fatal mistake of staying in the war. This allowed Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, a previously insignificant Marxist party, to seize the initiative in the October Revolution. Russia became the world’s first communist state and, against all expectations, the resultant Soviet Union endured until 1991.

Hoping that their revolution would spread across Europe, the Bolsheviks agreed to the Germans’ harsh peace terms in March, 1918.

With Russia out of the war, the Germans could now concentrate their energies on the western front. This had become an increasingly urgent matter, since the United States had joined the war in April, 1917, as an “associate” of the entente powers. Indeed, the entente ended the war with a truly global coalition of 22 states, including Japan.

The Americans had joined the war partly because the U-boat campaign sank their shipping and killed US citizens, and partly because of German intrigues connected to Mexico.

The main reason, however, was the sense of personal mission carried by its president, Woodrow Wilson. He thought that decisive American involvement in the war would enable him to impose his grandiose liberal internationalist vision on the peace settlement.

In one sense, Wilson believed all the European states were as bad as each other and he loathed imperialism. The New World, it seemed, could show the old world where it had gone wrong.

The war ends

The entry of the US into the war certainly softened the blow of the Russian collapse for the entente powers, although the massive potential advantage of American involvement would take some time to have a significant impact on operations in Europe.

Meanwhile, victory in the east gave Germany a very real chance to break through the static lines of the western front. Indeed, the brutal Spring Offensives in 1918 made the western front mobile for the first time in years.

Crucially, the Germans did not break through and the entente powers absorbed the attack. From July onwards the entente, with increasing American support, forced a German retreat. By the autumn, Germany’s allies were falling away.

The German army high command sought an armistice but did not want to take the blame for defeat. On November 9, 1918, the Kaiser abdicated and a new civilian government assumed control in Berlin. Therefore the November 11 armistice between the entente and Germany was firmly associated with “cowardly” civilian politicians rather than the army, which many Germans believed was undefeated on the battlefield. After all, entente troops did not set foot on German soil.

The bitter aftertaste of the “stab in the back” myth lingered in post-war German politics and society, helping to set the scene for Hitler and Nazism. In more of a general sense, as the clock struck eleven on the morning of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the world began the impossible task of trying to understand what had happened.

The war becomes history

Gavrilo Princip died of tuberculosis in prison in April, 1918. He did not live to see the armistice or the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended the war with Germany on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after he had assassinated Franz Ferdinand.

Dr Edward Packard has been a lecturer in history at University Campus Suffolk since 2010. He mainly teaches 20th Century international history.

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