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How The World Went To War In 1914

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife were assassinated by a Serbian-backed terrorist. During the crisis that followed, Europe's leaders made a series of political, diplomatic and military decisions that would turn a localised conflict in south-east Europe into a global war.

Austria-Hungary, with German encouragement, declared war on Serbia on 28 July. Russia's support of Serbia brought France into the conflict. Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August and France on 3 August. Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality and British fears of German domination in Europe brought Britain and its empire into the war on 4 August.

These actions reflect the fears, anxieties and ambitions of the European powers. The decisions for war were made in the context of growing nationalism, increased militarism, imperial rivalry and competition for power and influence. Europe's leaders were willing to go to war to defend or extend national interests and their choices were shaped by a combination of long and short-term foreign policy goals, political pressures at home, previous crises, and the system of opposing alliances that had developed over the previous 35 years.

  • Europe before 1914

    HMS <em>Hercules</em>, 1914.
    HMS Hercules, 1914.
    Q 21334

    By 1914, Europe was divided into two rival alliance systems. In 1871, German unification dramatically altered the balance of power in Europe. This new power bloc at the heart of central Europe strengthened further when Germany formed an alliance in 1879 with neighbouring Austria-Hungary, which Italy joined three years later. Fear of Germany’s growing strength encouraged Russia and France to enter into alliance in 1893. German ambitions to build a battle fleet initiated a naval arms race with Britain that seriously strained relations between the two. Britain had long seen France and Russia as potential enemies, but from 1904 it negotiated agreements with them, aiming to secure its empire by settling colonial disputes. The new and unlikely friendship between these three powers heightened German fears of ‘encirclement’ and deepened the divide among the European powers. Imperial rifts worsened these divisions and tensions. When Germany tried to oppose a French takeover of Morocco, Britain supported France.

  • A distant crisis

    Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife descending the steps of the City Hall, Sarajevo, to their motor car, 28 June 1914.
    Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife descending the steps of the City Hall, Sarajevo, to their motor car, 28 June 1914.
    Q 81831

    Relations between Austria-Hungary and neighbouring Serbia had been tense in the years before the murder of the Archduke. Austria had long seen Serbia as a threat to the stability of its multi-ethnic empire. Austria's annexation of Bosnia in 1908 and Serbian ambitions to unify south-east Europe's Slavic people further strained relations in this volatile part of Europe. Following the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, Serbia emerged as a larger and more assertive presence in south-east Europe. On 28 June 1914, a Bosnian-Serb terrorist shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne. The assassin was 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, one of several would-be young assassins who were intent on using violence to destroy Austria-Hungarian rule. Suspecting Serbian backing for the assassination, Austria-Hungary was determined to use the royal murder to crush the Serbian threat once and for all.

     

  • Europe takes sides

    A cartoon map depicting Europe in 1914.
    A cartoon map depicting Europe in 1914.
    Art.IWM PST 1419

    The crisis which developed in the summer of 1914 was one of several that had erupted in Europe in the early twentieth century. International tensions had been mounting, but in every previous crisis a continental war had been avoided. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand stoked old tensions beyond the Balkans. The crisis spread as other powers pledged support for either Austria or Serbia. Austria knew that conflict with Serbia would likely involve Russia, which saw itself as Serbia's protector. Austria-Hungary turned to its own ally. On 5 July, Germany promised Austria full support for a severe response against Serbia. Austria-Hungary's aggression towards Serbia and Russian support for Serbia in the aftermath of the assassination stemmed from fears that, if either backed down, they would lose credibility and prestige as great powers. Germany's ambitions, its perception of its own isolation and its increasing fear of 'encirclement' drove its foreign policy. The preservation of Austria-Hungary - its only reliable ally - as a great power became an important part of German policy.

  • Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia

    Civilians waving farewell to Austrian troops departing for war service.
    Civilians waving farewell to Austrian troops departing for war service.
    Q 106569

    With the guarantee of German backing, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum on 23 July, intent on starting a war with Serbia. Serbia's sovereignty would be destroyed if it accepted the terms in full, but any reply other than unconditional acceptance would give Austria-Hungary its excuse for war. Austria rejected the Serbian reply, which conceded to all the ultimatum's terms except the involvement of Austro-Hungarian officials in an inquiry into the assassination. On 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. It was determined to take decisive action against Serbia and, by now, knew this risked war with Russia, Serbia's supporter. Austria-Hungary was prepared to risk war because it had the guarantee of German support. The Balkan crisis now threatened a European-wide war.

  • Europe prepares for war

    A military parade along Unter den Linden, Berlin, shortly before the First World War.
    A military parade along Unter den Linden, Berlin, shortly before the First World War.
    Q 81727

    Throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Europe's leaders saw military strength as an essential part of being a great power. Britain saw its Royal Navy as its 'sword and shield'. Most of the European powers maintained mass armies through compulsory military service and embarked on large-scale arms programmes. They formulated war plans which they expected to bring swift victories if war came. But some powers were more prepared to start a war than others. By the summer of 1914, Germany had only one war plan, which was to knock France out of the war before turning on France's ally, Russia. German politicians saw the Balkan crisis in 1914 as an opportunity to inflict a diplomatic setback on Russia and France, but its Generals feared Russia's growing military power and were ready to strike before it was too late.

  • Europe goes to war

    German troops waving from a train.
    German troops waving from a train.
    Q 81763

    Russia ordered its forces to prepare for war on 30 July. While the Russians viewed this mobilisation as a precaution in case war broke out, the Germans saw it as an aggressive act of war directed against itself and Austria-Hungary. Germany's war plan was time-sensitive, being based upon beating France before Russia could get its army fully into action. On 31 July, Germany sent an ultimatum to Russia demanding it demobilise. The next day, this ultimatum expired without a reply. Germany declared war on Russia and ordered its own general mobilisation. France knew that it faced German invasion, but was clear that it must stand or fall with Russia. Many Frenchmen also hoped that war could settle old grievances with Germany stemming from the 1870s. Germany declared war on 3 August. Throughout the crisis, Russia and France were putting increased pressure on the British to declare their support. But under the terms of its agreements with Russia and France, Britain had no obligation to fight.

  • Britain agonises over its position

    A British recruitment poster.
    A British recruitment poster.
    Art.IWM PST 11370

    Britain was largely removed from the growing crisis in Europe until late July. News of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was met with shock and surprise in Britain, but it was regarded as a distant crisis. As the crisis grew, British involvement remained uncertain, even as the threat of war spread across Europe. Many did not want to fight and believed that Britain should not get involved. The government was divided over Britain's involvement in what was regarded by some as a purely European affair. It had authority over the military in making final decisions for war – unlike in Germany where the military high command had immense power. Britain's foreign policy was based upon maintaining a balance of power in Europe. Britain was also determined to protect its vast global empire and its sea trade. It feared Germany's domination of the continent and its challenge to British industrial and imperial supremacy. But until late July 1914, Britain was largely preoccupied with domestic issues. Social, industrial and political unrest and the threat of civil war in Ireland received most of the nation's attention.

  • Britain takes action

    British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey.
    British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey.
    Q 80737

    From 24 July, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey tried to organise an international peace conference to prevent further escalation. Although France accepted his proposals, Germany refused. On 29 July, Germany requested British neutrality in the event of a European war, which Britain refused. German victory in western Europe would establish its control along the Channel coast and pose a threat to Britain's security and trade. From 1 August, the British took further action that brought them closer to war. They mobilised the navy and promised to protect the French coast from German aggression through the Channel. On 2 August, the Cabinet agreed to support Belgium if there was a substantial violation of its neutrality.

  • Germany invades Belgium

    German troops crossing the Place Charles Rogier in Brussels, following the invasion of Belgium in August 1914.
    German troops crossing the Place Charles Rogier in Brussels, following the invasion of Belgium in August 1914.
    Q 88431

    After declaring war on France, Germany was now determined to execute its war plan to defeat France first and then concentrate its forces against Russia. The plan required German troops invade Belgium to get to France. This would be in direct violation of Belgium’s neutrality, which had been guaranteed in a treaty signed by major European powers, including Britain, in 1839. On the evening of 2 August 1914, Germany demanded that its troops be allowed to pass through Belgian territory. Belgium refused. Accepting Germany’s demands would make Belgium complicit in the attack on France and partially responsible for the violation of its own neutrality. Germany invaded on 4 August.

  • Britain and its Empire go to war

    A British recruitment poster.
    A British recruitment poster.
    Art.IWM PST 0948

    Germany’s invasion of Belgium tipped the balance for Britain. At 2pm on 4 August, it issued an ultimatum demanding Germany withdraw its troops. At 11pm, the deadline passed without a reply. Britain declared war. Britain’s entry into war was partially a reaction to larger anxieties about the balance of power in Europe, as well as its own security and position in the world. But by violating Belgium’s neutrality, Germany positioned itself as the belligerent aggressor and made British intervention a moral issue about the rights of small nations. The entry of Britain and its empire made this a truly global war. Europe’s leaders went to war with the general support of their citizens. This was especially important in Britain, where there was no compulsory military service and recruitment would be dependent on voluntary enlistment.