In this unit
- Long term causes of WW1
- Short term causes of WW1
- The War itself
Questions to consider
- What were the main causes of WW1? Which factors seem the most important?
- Could the outbreak of WW1 be blamed on any one country?
Short-term sources of tension leading to WW1
- An international disarmament conference held in 1899 failed because the great powers’ mutual suspicion trumped their desire for general disarmament; this convinced many European leaders that war would be very likely in the near future. Tensions remained high
- The Moroccan Crises → in 1905 Germany, partly to test how sincere Anglo-French ties were, provoked France over her influence in Morocco, threatening war but being forced to back down; in 1911 she tried again, even sending ships to Morocco, but Britain and France again forced Germany to back down.
Neither crisis resulted in war, but raised international tensions: an embittered Germany now aligned herself further with the Triple Alliance, while Britain and France signed the Triple Entente in 1907 with Russia; from then Europe was well and truly divided into two armed camps (the terms of these alliances were secret, further exacerbating tensions)
- The alliance system obligated allies to come to each other’s aid if they were ever attacked, thus binding the great powers together into two rival gangs or armed camps; on paper, this secured peace through the threat of war (deterrence), since no power would want to risk a catastrophic general war involving all the members on both sides
The members of the two alliances. Can you identify which alliance is which, and their members?
- More Balkan troubles → continuing, unresolved tensions in the Balkans turned it into a powder keg, waiting for the final light of the match:
- Bosnian Crisis → in 1908 Austria-Hungary, to weaken Serbia, annexed the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina; tensions skyrocketed as Serbia defied Austria-Hungary, calling in Russian support, which resulted in Austria-Hungary calling in German support; in the end Russia was forced to back down. The Crisis proved deeply humiliating to Russia, who now committed even more to building up her (backward) military, and strengthening her Triple Entente ties.
- The Balkan Wars → two wars were fought between the Balkan states in 1912 and 1913; these were not general wars, but still raised international tensions. The independence of Albania in 1912 further exacerbated tensions between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, since the latter played a key role in establishing Albania, which denied Serbia access to the sea. Balkan tensions were now dangerously high
- The Sarajevo Incident and the July Crisis → the final straw came on 28th June, 1914, when Franz Ferdinand, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, visited the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. Members of the Black Hand, a Slavic ultranationalist terrorist group with ties to the Serbian military, ambushed him, and though the assassination attempt was nearly botched their leader Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Ferdinand, along with his pregnant wife. Events now spiralled out of control:
- Austria-Hungary held Serbia responsible, and after securing blank-cheque support from Germany, delivered a severe ultimatum, threatening war if its terms were not met. Serbia accepted parts of the ultimatum, but not all of it
- Austria-Hungary reacted by declaring war on Serbia at the end of July — but it was not a general war yet
- In response Russia began to mobilise her gigantic army, a very slow process
- Germany demanded that both Russia and France stay neutral in the conflict; having heard no reply, Germany declared war on Russia on 1st Aug
- France, in support of Russia, mobilised the very next day, but without declaring war; Germany declared war on her on 3rd Aug
- Britain declared war on Germany the next day, as German forces had violated Belgium’s neutrality in order to march quickly into France (Britain had been bound by treaty to keep Belgium neutral)
Thus all of the great powers were at war with each other by early August 1914; this should have come as no surprise, since the mechanisms of the alliance system had operated just as they’d been designed to, with one great power after another getting dragged into the conflict because of alliance obligations.
The other powers: Japan joined the Allies later in 1914; Italy remained neutral until 1915, when she switched sides to join the Triple Entente (now known as the Allies); Turkey joined the war on the side of the Triple Alliance (now known as the Central Powers) in late 1914; the USA joined the war toward its end, in 1917.
What are the usefulness and limitations of this cartoon in illustrating the outbreak of general war in July and August 1914?
The War itself
WW1 was enormously destructive, unlike anything the European great powers had ever seen:
- WW1 was a total war, with all members of society taking part in the war effort: men served in the military, while old people, women, and children worked at the home front (taking over the duties of the men who’d gone to fight, but also building munitions for the war). For many of the nations involved, the war was a life or death struggle
- The fighting was very fierce, pitting conscripted soldiers against rapid-fire machine guns, barbed wire, poison gas, and high-explosive shells and bombs — at first many generals were not used to this new military technology, and relied on old-fashioned tactics that got many soldiers killed
- The sudden shock of modern, industrialised slaughter left many soldiers maimed for life, and many were severely traumatised by what they’d experienced (eg. shellshock)
- Many soldiers from the colonies of the great powers were conscripted as well; they suffered horribly fighting for a cause that they cared little for
- WW1 was also a three-dimensional war: for the first time ever, fighting took place simultaneously on land, at (and under) sea, and in the skies
- War planes and military submarines were used for the first time during WW1
- WW1 was also a propaganda war, with governments using mass media such as newspapers and radio to encourage citizens to support the war effort
- During the war, there were three great changes among the participating nations:
- Japan joined the Allied side later in 1914, mostly because she had an eye on Germany’s Far Eastern territories
- Italy joined the Allies in 1915, having signed the secret Treaty of London which promised her land in return for abandoning the Central Powers
- In 1917 Russia withdrew from the war, after the communists under Lenin seized power in Russia
- In 1917 the USA joined the war on the Allied side, after Germany provoked her with the Zimmermann Telegram (which asked Mexico to join the war on the Central Powers side); prior to this, US-German relations had become very tense over the German torpedoing of the RMS Lusitania (part of Germany’s strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare), killing 128 American passengers
- The war ended when Germany surrendered in Nov 1918. By then, the war had killed some 20 million people, both soldier and civilian; tens of millions more were wounded.
- The closing months of the war also saw the outbreak of a devastating pandemic, the Spanish Flu, which killed as many as 50 million people worldwide. This made recovery from the war even more slow and painful
- Though the war ruined Europe (some 20 million people were killed, and thousands of towns and several key cities were destroyed, along with swathes of farmland), it brought some benefits:
- The status of women was raised after the war, with many societies acknowledging how vital they had been to the war effort; women in Britain and the US won the right to vote soon after 1918 — many women were forced out of the workplace however as soldiers returned from the fighting
- New technologies developed during the war also made their way into civilian use, such as radios and more powerful medicine, and these helped improve the quality of life — however many of the military technologies developed during the war would help make WW2 even more destructive
- Though most of leaders of the great powers were intent on making a lasting peace when they met at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, their alienation of Germany, Japan, and Italy, along with destabilising socioeconomic developments in the 1920s and 1930s, set the stage for an unimaginably more destructive WW2