The First World War (Part 2: Events Leading To The Outbreak Of War)


Time  chart of main events

Europe divides into  two  armed  camps:
1882  Triple Alliance of  Germany, Austria-Hungary and  Italy
1894  France and Russia sign alliance
1904  Britain and  France sign  'Entente  Cordiale'  (friendly  'getting-together')
1907  Britain and Russia sign agreement.
Other important events:
1897: Admiral Tirpitz's Navy  Law - Germany intends to  build up  fleet
1902: Britain and Japan  sign  alliance
1904-5: Russo-Japanese War, won by Japan
1905-6: Moroccan  Crisis
1906: Britain builds first  'Dreadnought' battleship
1908: Bosnia Crisis
1911: Agadir Crisis
1912: First Balkan War
1913  Second Balkan War
1914  28 June: Archduke Franz Ferdinand assassinated  in  Sarajevo
          28  July  Austria-Hungary declares war on  Serbia
          29  July  Russia orders  general mobilization of  troops
          1  August  Germany declares war on Russia
          3  August  Germany declares war on France
          4  August  Britain enters war
          6  August  Austria-Hungary declares war on Russia.

(a) The Moroccan Crisis (1905-6)

This was an attempt by the  Germans to expand their empire and  to  test  the recently signed Anglo-French  ‘Entente Cordiale’ (1904), with its understanding that France would recog­nize  Britain’s  position  in  Egypt  in  return  for  British  approval  of  a  possible French takeover of Morocco; this was one of the few  remaining areas of Africa not controlled by a European power.

The Germans announced that they would assist the Sultan of Morocco to maintain his  country’s independence, and demanded an international conference to discuss its future.  A conference was duly  held at Algeciras in southern  Spain  (January 1906).

The  British  believed  that  if  the  Germans  had  their  way,  it  would  lead  to  virtual German  control  of  Morocco.  This  would  be  an  important  step  on  the  road  to  German diplomatic domination and it would encourage them  to  press ahead with their  Weltpolitik.

The  British,  who had just signed the  ‘Entente  Cordiale’ with France,  were determined to lead the opposition to Germany at the conference.  The Germans did not take  the  ‘Entente’ seriously because there was a long history of hostility between Britain and France.  But to the  amazement  of  the  Germans,  Britain,  Russia,  Italy  and  Spain  supported  the  French
demand  to  control  the  Moroccan bank and police.  It was  a  serious  diplomatic  defeat for the  Germans,  who realized  that  the  new  line-up  of  Britain  and  France  was a  force to be reckoned  with,  especially  as  the  crisis  was  soon  followed  by  Anglo-French ‘military conversations’.

(b) The British agreement with Russia (1907)

This was  regarded  by  the  Germans  as  another hostile  move.  In fact  it  was a  logical step, given that in  1894  Russia had signed an alliance with France,  Britain’s new partner in the ‘Entente  Cordiale’.

For  many years the  British had viewed  Russia as  a disgraceful  exam­ple  of  corrupt,  anti-democratic  aristocratic  government.  Worse  still,  the  Russians  were seen as a major threat  to  British interests  in  the Far East and  India.  However, the situation had  recently  changed:

  • Russia’s  defeat  by  Japan  in  the  war  of  1904-5  seemed  to  suggest that  the  Russians were no  longer  much of a military threat.
  • The outbreak of revolution in Russia in  January  1905 had weakened the country  internally.
  • The Russians were keen to end the  long-standing  rivalry  and  anxious  to  attract  British investment  for  their  industrial modernization  programme.
  • In October 1905, when the Tsar granted the Russian people freedom of speech and the right to have an elected parliament, the  British  began  to  feel more kindly disposed towards the tsarist system.

These factors made agreement  possible and  the  two governments  were  able  therefore  to  settle  their  remaining  differences  in  Persia, Afghanistan  and  Tibet.  It  was  not  a  military alliance  and  not  necessarily  an  anti-German move, but the  Germans saw  it as confirmation of their  fears that  Britain, France and Russia were planning to  ‘encircle’  them.

(c) The Bosnia Crisis (1908)

The  crisis  over  Bosnia,  a  province  of  Turkey,  brought  the  tension  between Austria-Hungary and Serbia to  fever pitch.  In  1878 the Congress of  Berlin had reached the rather  confusing  decision  that  Bosnia  should  remain  officially  part  of  Turkey,  but  that Austria-Hungary should be allowed to administer it.

In  1908 there was a new government in  Turkey, dominated by a group of  army officers (known as  Young Turks),  who resented the  Austrian  presence  in  Bosnia  and  were  determined  to  assert  Turkish  control  over  the province.  This  gave  the  Austrians  the  chance  to  get  in  first:  they  announced  the  formal annexation of  Bosnia. This was a  deliberate  blow  at  the  neighbouring  state  of Serbia,  which had  also  been  hoping  to  take  Bosnia  since  it  contained  about  three  million Serbs among its  mixed population of  Serbs,  Croats and  Muslims.  The  Serbs  appealed for help to their fellow  Slavs,  the Russians, who called for  a European conference,  expecting French and British support.

  • When it became clear  that  Germany would support  Austria in the  event  of  war,  the French  drew  back,  unwilling  to  become  involved  in  a  war  in  the Balkans.
  • The British,  anxious  to  avoid  a  breach  with Germany,  did  no  more than  protest to Austria-Hungary.
  • The Russians, still smarting from  their defeat by Japan, dared not risk another war without  the  support  of  their  allies.

There  was  to  be  no  help  for  Serbia;  no conference took  place,  and  Austria kept Bosnia. It  was  a  triumph for  the  Austro-German alliance,  but  it  had unfortunate results:

  • Serbia remained bitterly hostile to Austria, and it  was this quarrel which sparked off the  outbreak of  war.
  • The  Russians were determined  to  avoid any further humiliation  and  embarked on amassive  military  build-up  and  modernization  of  the  army,  together  with  an improvement in  their railway system to allow faster  mobilization. They intended to be prepared if  Serbia should  ever  appeal for  help again.

(d) The Agadir Crisis (1911)

This crisis was caused by further developments in  the situation in  Morocco. French troops
occupied Fez,  the  Moroccan capital,  to put down a rebellion against the  Sultan.  It  looked
as if the French were about to annex Morocco.  The Germans sent a gunboat, the Panther, to  the  Moroccan  port  of  Agadir,  hoping  to  pressurize  the  French  into  giving Germany compensation, perhaps the  French Congo.

The British were worried in  case the  Germans acquired  Agadir,  which  could  be  used  as  a  naval  base  from  which to  threaten Britain’s trade  routes. In order to strengthen French resistance,  Lloyd George (Britain’s Chancellor of  the  Exchequer) said  that  Britain would not stand by and be taken  advantage of  ‘where her interests were vitally affected’.

The  French  stood  firm,  making  no  major  concessions,  and  eventually  the  German gunboat  was  removed.  The  Germans  agreed  to  recognize  the  French  protectorate  (the right  to  ‘protect’  the  country  from  foreign  intervention)  over  Morocco in  return  for two strips of territory  in the  French Congo. This was seen as a triumph for  the  Entente powers, but  in  Germany  public  opinion  became  intensely  anti-British, especially  as  the  British were drawing slowly ahead in  the  ‘naval  race’.  At the end of  1911 they had built eight of the  new  and  more powerful  ‘Dreadnought’  -type  battleships,  compared with  Germany’s four.

(e) The First Balkan War (1912)

The  war  began  when  Serbia,  Greece,  Montenegro  and  Bulgaria  (calling  themselves  the
Balkan  League)  launched  a  series  of  attacks  on  Turkey.  These  countries  had  all,  at  one time,  been  part  of  the  Turkish  (Ottoman)  Empire.  Now  that  Turkey  was  weak (regarded by  the  other powers as  ‘the Sick Man of Europe’), they seized their chance to acquire more land  at Turkey’s expense.  They soon  captured  most of  the  remaining  Turkish territory in Europe.

Together  with  the German government, Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary,  arranged a  peace conference  in  London.  He was anxious  to  avoid  the  conflict spreading, and also to demonstrate that Britain and Germany could still work together.  The resulting  settlement  divided  up  the  former  Turkish  lands  among  the  Balkan  states.

However,  the  Serbs  were not  happy  with  their  gains:  they  wanted  Albania,  which  would give them an  outlet to the sea, but the Austrians, with German and British support, insisted that  Albania should become an  independent state.  This was a deliberate  Austrian move to prevent  Serbia becoming  more powerful.


(f) The Second  Balkan War (1913)

The  Bulgarians  were  dissatisfied  with  their  gains  from  the  peace  settlement  and  they blamed  Serbia.  They  had  been  hoping  for  Macedonia,  but  most  of  it  had  been  given  to Serbia. Bulgaria  therefore  attacked  Serbia,  but their  plan misfired when Greece,  Romania and  Turkey rallied  to  support  Serbia.  The  Bulgarians  were defeated,  and by the  Treaty  of Bucharest  (1913),  they  forfeited  most  of  their  gains  from  the  first  war.

It seemed  that  Anglo-German  influence  had  prevented  an  escalation of  the  war by  restrain­ing  the  Austrians,  who  were  itching  to  support  Bulgaria  and  attack  Serbia.  In  reality, however,  the  consequences of  the  Balkan  Wars  were  serious:

  • Serbia  had  been  strengthened  and  was  determined  to  stir  up  trouble  among  the Serbs and Croats living  inside  Austria-Hungary;
  • the  Austrians were equally determined to  put an end to  Serbia’s ambitions;
  • the  Germans  took  Grey’s  willingness  to  co-operate  as  a  sign  that  Britain  was prepared  to  be  detached  from  France and  Russia.


(g) The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand

This tragic event,  which took  place  in  Sarajevo,  the  capital  of  Bosnia,  on  28  June  1914,
was  the  immediate  cause  of  Austria-Hungary’s  declaration  of  war  on  Serbia,  which was soon to develop into the  First World War.

The Archduke, nephew and heir to the  Emperor Franz  Josef of Austria-Hungary,  was paying an official visit  to  Sarajevo when he  and his wife were shot  dead by  a  Serb terrorist,  Gavrilo  Princip.  The  Austrians blamed  the  Serb government  and  sent a  harsh ultimatum.  The  Serbs accepted most of the  demands  in  it,  but the  Austrians,  with a promise  of  German support,  were  determined  to use the  incident  as  an  excuse  for war.

On 28 July,  Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.  The Russians,  anxious not to  let the Serbs  down  again,  ordered  a  general  mobilization  (29  July).  The  German  government demanded that this should be  cancelled  (31  July), and when the  Russians failed to  comply, Germany  declared  war  on  Russia  (1  August)  and  on  France  (3  August).

When  German troops entered  Belgium on  their way to invade France,  Britain (who in 1839 had promised to defend Belgian neutrality) demanded their withdrawal. When this demand was ignored, Britain entered the  war (4 August). Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia on 6  August. Others countries joined  later.

The war was to have profound effects on  the future of the  world.  Germany was soon to be  displaced,  for  a  time  at  least,  from  her  mastery  of  Europe,  and  Europe  never  quite regained its  dominant  position in the  world.

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