Proclamation of German Empire Palace of Versailles –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1

The Franco-Prussian War 1870-71

Image 1: The proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles.
Border States Alsace and Lorraine –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1
The origins of the Great War can be traced back to the year 1871.  Up untill then, France was considered the strongest military power on the planet.  However they were comfortably defeated by Prussia – the most aggressive of the German states.  Prussia went on to humiliate France by announcing the formation of the German Empire in one of their most prestigious addresses – the Palace of Versailles, Paris.  To rub salt into the wound the new German Empire immediately expanded its frontiers by annexing the French border states of Alsace and Lorraine.  Speaking to the French Parliament, Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables) warned of the ‘immense revenge’ that would be exacted.  From this date, France began to expand its army but their population was growing less fast than that of Germany and so to take on their troublesome neighbour they would also need allies.
Image 2:  The border states of Alsace and Lorraine were annexed by Germany in 1871.    Key cities were lost including Metz and Strasbourg (now home to the European parliament).

Kaiser Wilhem II, Master of Germany

Cartoon Otto Von Bismarck –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1
Image 3:  The experienced Chancellor (Prime Minister) Otto von Bismarck is dropped from the ship ‘Germany’.  The Kaiser announced ‘There is only one master in Germany and I am he’. Bismarck had worked hard to prevent potential enemies from becoming allies.
In 1888 and then in 1890, tension was further heightened with two important changes in the leadership of Germany.  The first change was the coronation of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the second was the dismissal of Count Otto von Bismarck, a shrewd politician who had been German Chancellor for 20 years.  Wilhelm described himself as ‘master of Germany’ and by placing his faith in military might rather than diplomacy, he created insecurity and fear across Europe.

The Alliance System and Imperial Rivalry

Triple Alliance Created 1882 –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1
Image 4:  The Triple Alliance was created in 1882 by three ‘Central Powers’.  Italy had an opt out clause if she was called upon to fight Britain.
For several European powers the need for allies became more urgent. Germany had already signed an alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and with Italy (1882) and other nations felt vulnerable.  There seemed no chance that France and Britain would ever become friends. 
Image 5: A French view of the crisis over Sudan. Britain is portrayed as the big bad wolf and France as little red riding hood. Fashoda was the town at the centre of the dispute.
France and Britain were traditional foes who almost went to war in 1898 when a crisis blew up over possession of Sudan. This strengthened the case of those in Britain who thought Britain should ally itself with Germany.  However these calls subsided in 1899 when Britain went to war in South Africa and the Germans openly backed the Boers.  Britain was not on good terms with Russia either.  Russia’s territorial ambitions in the Balkans seemed to threaten Britain’s trade route through the Suez Canal and it was further believed that the Tsar had designs on India.
In 1892 France and Russia signed an alliance that stated that if either country was attacked by Germany, or Austria supported by Germany then the other would intervene with all their might.  Although Russia was a large country which could potentially provide millions of soldiers, it lacked the means to arm, or transport them.  France therefore began to lend vast sums to Russia to build munitions factories and railways.  Meanwhile Britain remained in a state of ‘splendid isolation’.
French View of Sudan Crisis –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1
Cartoon Entente Cordiale –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1
In 1904, Britain and France both recognized that they had more cause to fear Germany than each other and talks began that resulted in the ‘Entente Cordiale’.  Unlike an alliance, there was no formal commitment to help one another in war but some long standing grievances were resolved.  Prompted by France, Britain then patched up its differences with Russia and the Triple Entente was born.   It is important to note that while France and Russia had an obligation to help one another in war, Britain was not committed.
Image 6:  A German view of the Entente Cordiale.  Britain is shown as ‘John Bull’ with a top hat and France is shown as a harlot.  If an alliance is like a marriage, then the entente meant that Britain and France were merely moving in together. This became an important distinction.

Schlieffen Plan 1905

Schlieffen Plan 1905 –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1
Image 7:  The Schlieffen Plan required a lightning strike on France.  The strongest army was the one closest to the English Channel which had to travel furthest, fastest and might have to fight Belgian and British forces as well as those of France.
No-one was certain what Britain’s relationship with France and Russia really meant.  However to the German military this was encirclement, with Russia threatening its Eastern border, France to the West and Britain dominating the North Sea.  The head of the German Army (Count Alfred von Schlieffen) devised a plan that would allow German to fight a war on two fronts without dividing its army.  The Schlieffen Plan was both bold and risky.  Germany would throw all its might against France in the West and defeat them before Russia had time to mobilize its army.  Schlieffen observed that Russia’s antiquated transport system would mean that it would take a while for the Russian army to be gathered in and moved to the German frontier.  He calculated that this gave Germany a 6 week window in which to defeat France.

The Naval Race

HMS Dreadnought –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1
Von Schlieffen expected limited military involvement from across the Channel.  Britain had a very small army compared to other great power but Britannia ruled the waves with a navy that was larger than the next two biggest added together!  However in 1906 that changed with the launch of a revolutionary new battleship - H.M.S. ‘Dreadnought’.
Dreadnought was faster, carried more armour plate, and had bigger guns with a longer range than anything else on the high seas.  Britain’s numerical superiority in warships now counted for nothing and so, when Germany launched its Dreadnought type battleship (The ‘Westfalen’) in 1908, it caused quite a stir.  The Kaiser added to international tension by calling the British ‘mad’ and declaring himself ‘Admiral of the Atlantic’.  British shipyards were soon building new warships as quickly as they could, with German yards doing likewise. A naval race had begun and the prize was control of the words oceans.  In 1909 the score was Britain 2 Germany 3 but Britain was still ahead on aggregate.  The following year Britain managed to produce three more while the Germans only built one.  Britain’s best year was 1913 when another seven vessels were built leaving a score by the outbreak of war, of Britain 29 Germany 17.
Image 8.  H.M.S. ‘Dreadnought’ was such a radical improvement that it rendered all previous warships obsolete.

The Moroccan Crises

Cartoon Moroccan Crisis –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1
Image 9:  Punch cartoon showing Germany kicking what they thought was just a ball of paper that turned out to be rock.
In 1905-1906, and again in 1911, French controlled Morocco was at the centre of international disputes.  In the first of these crises, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Tangier to declare that Morocco should be an independent state.  Germany hoped that this challenge to France would lead to them breaking up with Britain.  It had the opposite outcome, and Britain and France began talks to strengthen their relationship.   Frustrated at the failure of this plan, the Kaiser proposed an alliance with Russia (who had an alliance with France), ‘to abolish English arrogance and ignorance’.  Again this backfired spectacularly and in 1907, Britain agreed an Entente with Russia.  There now existed two ‘Armed Camps’ with the Triple Entente facing the Triple Alliance.  It is important to state however that, as far as Britain was concerned, their relationship with France and Russia involved no military ties.
In 1911, there was a second crisis over Morocco.  The gunboat ‘Panther’ arrived in the Moroccan port of Agadir, ostensibly to protect German interests.  Britain and France were puzzled by this action as Germany had nothing there to protect.  Britain deduced that Germany was seeking to establish there a naval base from which warships could threaten British trade routes.    The response from Britain was a blistering speech from David Lloyd
George in which he threatened Germany with war.  Germany was forced into a humiliating climb down that left them seething and determined to seek retribution.  Discussions promptly took place in Berlin about when Germany would be ready for war.  The response from Admiral Tirpitz was interesting in that he suggested the German navy would be ready when work on the Kiel Canal was completed.  This was finished on 23rd June 1914, four days before Franz Ferdinand made his ill-fated visit to Sarajevo!
The Second Moroccan Crisis caused other nations to take the prospects of war very seriously.  Britain stepped up its war preparations with the creation of ‘The War Book’ which ran to over a million words and detailed clear steps that must be taken on the outbreak of hostilities by government departments, the military and all essential industries. In 1912, the British and French Governments agreed a naval convention under which the French navy congregated in the Mediterranean while British warships steamed in the other direction to assemble on the North Sea.  France also reaffirmed to Russia that they stood beside them – no matter what.

The Balkans

Map of the Balkans –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1
Image 10:  A map of the Balkans showing different ethnic groups.  This area had once been controlled by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire but as it declined, other sought to take control.  This included major players such as Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as the rival ethnic groups who lived there.
Both Russia and Austria-Hungary were eager to extend their influence in the Balkans – the mountainous area of South East Europe.  The prize for both was the port of Constantinople (Istanbul) and the straits that link the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire had some internal problems mostly stemming from a rise in nationalism. Their empire included Czechs, Poles, Slovaks and others, who wanted to govern themselves.  In 1908, Austrian forces suddenly took control of Bosnia-Herzegovina which prompted strong reaction from Serbia and Russia. However they were deterred from any form of military intervention by warnings from Germany.  Russia and Serbia backed down but vowed that they would not do so again.  Meanwhile Austria immediately began to regret not having seized the chance to crush Serbia.

Plotting Begins

The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and its aftermath, pushed Germany and Austria-Hungary closer than ever. A meeting was organised between their military commanders to plan for a conflict between their nations, and Russia supported by France.  The German Chancellor (Prime Minister) Count Berchtold began to work on a plan by which Austria could attack Serbia without looking like the aggressor.  In this way, he felt that Russia would not get involved. But Russia was preparing to defend its Slav cousins in Serbia and began talks with Britain on how best they could support each other in the event of a European war.

The Balkan Wars

Bulgarian Soldiers 1912 –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1
Image 11:  Bulgarian soldiers of 1912.  Bulgaria had only existed for 34 years when they acted with others to extend their national boundaries at Turkey’s expense.
The first European War of the 20th Century occurred in 1912.  This was a war of liberation between Balkan states and their former imperial master, Turkey (then called the Ottoman Empire). The Balkan states emerged victorious and the boundaries of Bulgaria, Serbia and others were extended.  Nationalist fervour was never stronger in the part of Europe and one underage lad, ill with tuberculosis tried unsuccessfully to enlist in the Serbian army.  He would rather die for his country in battle than pass away anonymously in hospital and history might have been different if that had been the case.  The young man was Gavrilo Princip.  The centenary of World War 1 might have been marked in 2012 had it not been for some high level diplomacy involving the British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey who managed to keep ambassadors talking when Turkey was calling for assistance from the Triple Alliance.  Peace was maintained but the feeling around Europe was that next time, it would all kick off! It didn’t.  In 1913 war broke out again in the Balkans and again Serbia benefitted; emerging bigger, stronger and more confident. This led to serious discussions in Austria and Germany about what their next step should be.
Conrad Von Hotzendorf –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1
Image 12: Conrad von Hotzendorf was Commander in Chief of the Austro-Hungarian army.
In Austria, the mood was summed up by Conrad von Hotzendorf;

“The chances of a victory over Serbia are less favourable for (us) than they would have been and we attacked earlier; the one certain thing is that they would grow worse with every year that passed."

Kaiser Wilhelm II –Western Front Witness –Causes of WW1 –Why Did WW1 Start?- Outbreak of WW1
The view expressed in 1913 by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was unambiguous.  He stated;
“If Austria-Hungary demands something, then the Serbian government MUST yield; if it does not, then Belgrade (capital of Serbia) will be bombarded, and occupied.  Of this you can be sure, that I stand behind you, and am ready to draw the sword if ever your action makes it necessary.”

The Austrian officials noted that the Kaiser reached for his sword as he spoke.


In Serbia, the Prime Minister was looking forward to a showdown with Austria-Hungary, and with their Imperial neighbour apparently holding a blank cheque from Germany, 1914 was going to be an interesting year!
Image 13:  Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.  In 1913 he encouraged Austria to go to war with Serbia.