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Why did the First World War break out in August 1914?

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The First World War broke out because of a system of two major European Alliances. These started a war due to Germany’s ruthlessness, and caused a European war. Then the nations’ colonies joined in, and eventually all of the world’s major powers had joined in, causing the First World War.

Before the main events of the war, two main alliances had been formed. Germany had defeated France in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. 3 000 French soldiers were killed, 14 000 wounded, and about 100 000 captured. Most importantly, the Emperor Napoleon III was captured. Ever since 1871, Germans had been worried that France would attack them, so they sought alliances with the other major European nations, so France would be isolated. By 1882, Germany was allied with Austra-Hungary and Italy, in an alliance called the Triple Alliance. Then, in 1887, they signed the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. Thus Germany was allied with three major European nations and France was left isolated.

In 1890, the German kaiser set out to make Germany a major world power. He aimed to increase the number of Germany’s overseas colonies. To do this, Germany increased the size of its navy. Britain’s Royal Navy was the world’s largest navy at the time, so Britain felt threatened and challenged by Germany’s naval build-up.

Also in 1890, the alliance between Germany and Russia was dropped. To stop its forced isolation, France allied with Russia in 1894. Germany was hence surrounded by France and Russia, and they felt threatened. The continued increasing their navy, making Britain feel threatened, also. Britain decided to ally with France and Russia, just in case Germany attacked. Thus, the Triple Entente was formed. The Triple Entente, made up of Britain, France and Russia, opposed the Triple Alliance, which was Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary.

Alfred von Schlieffen became the Chief of the German General Staff in 1891. Between then and 1905 he gradually worked out a plan of what to do in the event of war. This involved marching through Belgium and Holland to get to France, whereupon they would go in a wide circle and gain almost of half of the French territory. Six weeks was allowed for this to happen, while only ⅛ of Germany’s soldiers would hold off the slow-mobilising Russian army. After six weeks, the Army in France would move to the east side of Germany where they would hold off Russian forces. This plan was designed at a time when Russia was weakened by the Russo-Japanese war, so it required that Russia is slow to mobilise, and had diminished troops. Schlieffen also admitted that his plan was “an enterprise for which we are too weak”.

See diagram for widest sweep of schlieffen plan

Then the crisis began. The Archduke of Austria, Francis Ferdinand, was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Because he married a Countess, Sophie Chotek, he was not looked on favourably. On June 28, 1914, him and his wife were assassinated in Bosnia by a Serb nationalist. The assassination was not organised by the Serb Government, however Austria felt the need for revenge.

Conrad von Hotzendorf was the chief of the German General Staff, and had taken over from Alfred von Schlieffen in 1906. For years he had wanted an attack on Serbia or Italy, and this was the excuse he needed. He told the foreign minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, that they should attack Serbia, and together they asked the Emperor and the Prime Minister to attack without declaring war, to increase the element of surprise. They suggested that retribution against Serbia through diplomatic channels.

Because of a complex series of treaties, all nations were tied in together in the event of war. The Triple Alliance stated that if either Austria-Hungary or Germany found itself at war, the other would be forced to help. The Franco-Russian Military Convention stated that if France or Russia found itself at war with Austria-Hungary or Germany, the other must join in. As a result of a number of agreements, Britain would also be compelled to join. Because of these, if Russia declared war on Austria Hungary, Germany, France, and Britain would all be forced to join in.

On July 6, Germany offered what has become known as the “blank cheque” to Austria-Hungary. The kaiser, Wilhelm II, offered unconditional support to Austria-Hungary, no matter what action they chose to take against Serbia. This showed that Germany was prepared to go to war with France and Russia, and maybe even Britain.

On July 23, Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Serbia, with a 48 hour time limit. On July 25, Serbia responded that they could meet most, but not all of these demands. Because they couldn’t accept it all, they mobilised their army. The Austrians declared war on Serbia on July 28, wondering what Russia would do in response.

Unfortunately, at this time, many Austro-Hungarian politicians were not at their desks at the time, including the Emperor and the Prime Minister, who were on a diplomatic mission to Russia. At St. Petersburg they reaffirmed their support for Tsar, Nicholas II, in his backing of Serbia.

Russia mobilised their army on July 30, preparing for war against Austra-Hungary. On the same day, the French, who didn’t want a way, withdrew their troops 10 km back from the German border. Germany issued two ultimatums at that time, both with a 12 hour limit: one to Russia ordering demobilisation, and one to France, ordering a declaration of neutrality in the event of war with Russia. The Russian government did not respond and continued mobilisation, and the French Government replied that France would act in accordance with her own interests.

Both Germany and France began to mobilise on August 1. In the evening Germany declared war against Russia. On August 2, Germany delivered an ultimatum to Belgium requesting that Belgium remain neutral while German soldiers pass through on their way to France. The Belgian King, Albert I, declared his rejection to Germany’s ultimatum the next day. The British foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Gery, announced to the Parliament of Britain that Britain would fight to defend Belgian neutrality if necessary.

On August 4, German troops invaded Belgium. This was the Schlieffen Plan, but it was modified so Holland was not invaded, and the arc the troops went in was smaller. Britain demanded that a satisfactory explanation be given by 11 am UK time. When it received no response, the British declared war on Germany. Thus Britain’s overseas colonies and dominions offered assistance, including Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa. On August 23, Japan declared war on Germany, following a military agreement with Britain. Thus, by the end of 1914, Australia, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Liberia, Montenegro, New Zealand, Russia, Serbia and United Kingdom were all at war.

So, the First World War started by a series of many complex events. It started as a small war so Austria-Hungary could get revenge on Serbia, then, Germany was forced to join in due to the Triple Alliance. Then due to a “friendly understanding”, Russia attacked Austria-Hungary and Germany. Then France was pulled in because of the Triple Entente, and then Britain. That made it a European war. Because of Britains many colonies, overseas countries like Australia and Canada joined in. Japan joined the war because of a military agreement with Britain. The USA declared war with Germany and Austria-Hungary on April 6 and December 7 1917 respectively. Hence, the First World War was caused by a fight between two major Euopean alliances, each of which had colonies overseas also fighting, and then other nations joining in because of its huge scale. The responsibility should be shared, but not equally shared, as Germany’s ruthlessness is what caused the original European war, which escalated to form the First World War.

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