The Background to the War

  • Germany: The country and nation of Germany was formed only in 1871 out of the main German territory of Prussia in the East under Otto von Bismarck and the coming together of a number of well known but smaller and independent German speaking states like Hanover, Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden after a decisive military victory against France in the 1870 Franco Prussian war.  The Prussian leaders in Berlin were almost immediately encouraged to expand their territories even further. At the same time the Turkish Islamic Ottoman Empire was becoming smaller as peripheral territories in the Balkans like Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece saw their chance and fought to gain their independence from the Muslim Ottoman occupiers. The Christian Austro Hungarian Empire who had been fighting the Ottomans for 500 years then saw their opportunity to annex as many as possible of these Balkan states under a Catholic Christian flag. The Russians had a similar idea of expanding southwards but under an Orthodox Eastern Christian flag towards the Mediterranean Sea as they needed ports which did not ice up in the winter. 
  • The Balkan Wars; A series of battles, the last two being in 1912 and 1913, were orchestrated by The Balkan Club mainly Serbia, Greece and Montenegro to finally free themselves from their occupier the once huge, powerful Islamic Ottomans (Turkey) which had ruled and subdued them for the past 500 years. Russia as well as the large Austro-Hungarian Empire became poised to squabble for the spoils.

  • The new enlarged Germany was jealous of Britain’s world wide Empire and dominance of the seas and had built up their Navy in an attempt to match England’s and a trained standing army of nearly a million men waiting for an excuse to grab some more territory in Europe particularly from France but not hungering after any British territories. Additionally Germany felt hemmed in by the alliance (Entente) by a strengthening Russia in the East and France, the latter who wanted revenge for their losses in the Franco Prussian war. 

  • Britain watched in horror at this build up and enlarged their own fleet with the development of huge battleships “Dreadnaughts” but did nothing to enlarge, train and equip a standing army (Numbering only 100,000) or build submarines or indeed aeroplanes which had just been invented which the more imaginative nations could see as being very useful for dropping bombs and battle field reconnaissance.

  • France who were always first in line to feel German aggression had built up an army but it did not match the Germans in training, numbers or equipment. They did a deal with Russia to protect themselves against Germany and supplied Russia with loans to build up their military faster.

  • Russia wanted an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea and saw Orthodox Christian Serbia who wanted to annex Albania as an ally in that direction.

  • The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dying but wanted Balkan territories in their orbit to stop this decline hence their interest in annexing Serbia and Bosnia.

  • Military Equipment and tactics; All participants including Russia had the machine gun but it had never been used in a big European conflict. Tanks and motorised troop carriers had not been invented indeed cars were still a novelty for the rich. The main people and supplies transporter was still the horse with and without a cart (plus the train) and officers still saw themselves leading their troops into battle at full gallop brandishing their swords. The obvious result, with the wisdom of hindsight, was a human carnage and the death of millions of both men and horses.  

This was a disaster waiting to happen. Germany had being building up their military for more than 25 years with the feeling that they should not be playing second fiddle on a world wide basis to the mighty British Empire and Britain’s impressive navy. For some years there had been a race to build the largest battleship fleets with the latest designs called Dreadnaughts. Germany had also being building up their army of fully trained soldiers with the latest machine guns from Krupp and the realisation that aeroplanes could be useful both for reconnaissance and for dropping bombs. They also had developed propeller driven balloons called Zeppelins for reconnaissance and dropping bombs along with submarines which could fire torpedoes and sink Dreadnaughts which cost 100 times as much.     

The British were not taking war planes or submarines seriously as they were still thinking their main battles would not be in Europe but in defending their world wide empire, for example India, Canada, South Africa and Australia. Britain’s European land army was tiny in comparison with Germany and even with their ally France.

History books normally describe the trigger to outbreak of war was the assassination  of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, the heir to the throne of the Hapsburg Austro- Hungarian Empire in  Sarajevo, Bosnia, (then already part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire)  by a Bosnian student hit squad under Garnrillo Princip as Ferdinand inspected his Austro-Hungarian troops. What was background to this and could it really start a world wide war?

  • Bosnia and their neighbour Serbia had only recently won their independence from the Muslim Ottoman Empire after 500 years of occupation. The last thing they wanted was to be part of another oppressive empire.

  • Some well educated Bosnian teenage High School students had persuaded some Serbian revolutionist to give them some guns to start a revolution just to show they did not want to be ruled by Hapsburgs. An unexpected opportunity arose with the arrival of the Austrian Archduke heir to the throne, so they shot him. They had no idea that this would start a world war.

  • When the Austro-Hungarians army retaliated by marching towards Bosnia and Serbia to stamp out any further actions to avoid any uprising by the masses of Serbs who lived in Austria-Hungary, the Russians went immediately to the support of Serbia and simultaneously did a pre-emptive strike into East Prussia and Galicia in the north of Hungary.

  • Germany then mobilised on two fronts, on the Eastern Front to attack the Russians before they could do any damage to Austria and on the Western Front to attack France as they had be planning for years and also to stop them helping Russia.

  • The Ottomans then came in on the German side because they thought they were going to win and could later use German power to re-establish themselves across their huge Muslim territories and further.

  • The British then thought they must join as they were honour bound to the French and Belgium’s plus needed to stop the Ottomans from closing the Suez Canal which went through the middle of their territories and was Britain’s link to both India and their Persian oil fields accessed via the port of Basra in southern Mesopotamia also ruled by the Turks.

  • Britain’s Empire including Canada, Australia and New Zealand needed no second asking to support the English motherland as indeed did many Irish nationalists.  They were also joined by the huge Indian Subcontinent and the armies of Egypt which was under British control as a protectorate.

How did the war start so quickly?

This was because the various belligerents had been preparing for such a conflict for more than 10 years and all parties with the exception of the British had written and re-written their military land plans and cultivated their allies with great care and thought.

Germany as early as 1908 had made its first move to aggressively expand its empire at the expense of France in Morocco and the French Congo. Fortunately this did not come to war as it was resolved that Germany could sell and build the infrastructure it was good at like railways. If the belligerent Germans had taken Morocco from the friendly French the English realised that the Germans could close the sea entrance to the Mediterranean and hence stop British ships en-route to India via the Suez canal.

Serbia was the other main problem to European peace as having kicked out the Ottomans they wanted to expand their territories particularly to include Albania which would give them ports on the Adriatic. Serbia wanted to make themselves rulers of the Slaves and Russia would help them achieve it. 

By 1914 the Great Powers suddenly began to realise that any war that took place in Europe, using the mass of modern weapons now available to all of them, would be a disaster with huge damage to property and vast numbers of casualties by both attackers and defenders. Germany and England even used their Kings who were cousins to find some way out of it but alliances between Britain and France were too strong. What finally caused the Brits to send troops across the channel was Germany marching into the much smaller country of Belgium violating the wishes of this small independent country. Britain then as now had an inbuilt wish to always go to the defence of the underdog.