EVENTS LEADING UP TO THE GREAT WAR
The Franco-Prussian War, of 1871, ended with the defeat of France, who was forced to hand over her Eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. This war was the prelude to a period of hostility in Europe that was to last until the end of the Second World War in 1945. In the European summer of 1914, two great European alliances found themselves in a state of fury against each other. The initial main protagonists were Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the one side, and France, the British Empire and Russia on the other. Against the backdrop of plumed and helmeted Emperors and Generals, both sides possessed, by way of machine guns and high explosive artillery, weapons of terrible destruction. The origins of this war lay in the complicated cocktail of greed, fears, prejudices and misunderstandings of the early 1900’s. In 1914, Europe was still widely perceived as the financial, cultural and political centre of the world. The major European powers, however, were engaged in an arms race. Each was trying to acquire colonial possessions in the under-developed world.
In the late 19th Century, Bismarck had forged modern Germany out of a collection of smaller nation states and in doing so had upset the balance of power in Europe. Using her strengthening industrial power, she had built up both an army and navy of formidable size and capability. The two former players, France and Russia, concerned at Germany’s intentions formed a defensive alliance in 1894. Great Britain, alarmed at the German navy’s potential threat to the British domination of the world’s shipping routes aligned herself with France, whose fear of German aggression was nourished by her yearning for the return of the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Russia, with its population of 125 million had a vast resource of manpower and massive landmasses, but she lacked the technological skills and an industrialised state. In 1879, Germany and Austria-Hungary had signed the dual alliance to help each other should the other be attacked.
Within this background of alliances stood two faltering empires, the glories of the Turkish Empire, now widely recognised as the sick man of Europe, were already only a memory. The Austro-Hungarian Empire consisted of a ramshackle collection of states in the South of Europe. Austria-Hungary was particularly suspicious of the independent country of Serbia, who she saw as the effective leader of an international Slav terrorist movement. This was fermenting unrest between the 23 million Serbs living in the Empires’ territory. By 1914, the tensions in Europe had reached a dangerous level and, the very alliances, formed to protect the peace, now sucked the great nations of Europe into war.
Now we must turn to the Balkans. The Turkish Empire was disintegrating, and Russia confronted Austria-Hungary, the ally of Germany, the other power seeking to move into her area of interest. Here in this cauldron, with their different nationalities, religions, and languages, an incident in a city called Sarajevo set alight the tinderbox and the world went to war. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the nephew and heir of Emperor Franz Joseph who had ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire since 1848. Ferdinand had chosen the 28th June 1914 to visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, and a part of his uncles’ empire. In Sarajevo that day, several young revolutionaries had come for assassinating the Archduke. One of these, a 19-year-old tuberculoid student called Gavrillo Principp was sitting in a café when the Archdukes’ car took a wrong turning and had to reverse back past him. Principp, seizing this historic opportunity fired two shots at 5 yards range, killing both the Archduke and his wife Sophie. These two fatal shots were the opening salvo of the Great War.
THE EVE OF WAR
In 1879, Germany and Austria-Hungary had signed a dual alliance to help each other should either be attacked. In 1894 France, Russia and Great Britain signed the triple alliance in the event of war with Germany.
On the 28th June, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in the city of Sarajevo.
All the combatant powers saw military action as the natural extension of diplomacy. With the exception of Great Britain, all the major European powers had large conscripted armies. A spirit of fierce nationalism and xenophobia was abroad. Events now took on a momentum of their own. Austria-Hungary took the pretext to punish Serbia for her assumed prediction to terrorism. She obtained Germany’s assurance that she would support her if attacked by Russia, whose inclination was to come to the aid of any fellow Slav country that was threatened. On the 23rd July, Austria-Hungary delivered a ten-point ultimatum to Serbia, whom she assumed would find unacceptable. Serbia was given only two days to reply and much to general surprise accepted eight of the points and asked the remaining two to be referred to the Court Of The Haig for arbitration.
In Britain, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey suggested that the issue could be resolved at the conference table, but his mediation proposals were only given halfhearted support by Berlin and not taken up by Vienna. France and Russia, as well as Germany and Austria-Hungary, now tried to convince Grey to declare Britain’s position if a European war were to result from the crisis. Both sides hoped their hand would be strengthened with a clear declaration that it would either fight on the side of the Entente or remain neutral. However, Britain, preoccupied with the Irish question, refused until the very end of July to commit to its allies. In the crucial last days of July, Britain’s decision makers were torn between the fear of either Germany or Russia winning a war on the continent. It would have had grave consequences for Britain if Russia had managed to win without Britain’s support. However, if Germany had won, Britain would have faced a Germany-dominated Europe. Grey was placed in a quandary until Serbia had responded to the ultimatum.
This conciliatory reply, by Serbia, found no favour with Austria-Hungary, who began to mobilise her armies. On the 28th July Austria- Hungary declared war on Serbia and started to shell Belgrade. On 31st July, Russia began to mobilise, on the same day, Germany, desperate to act before the full effect of Russian involvement became operational, demanded that Russia recall her troops. At the same time, Germany asked France what she would do in the event of a German/Russian war. Frances’ reply was to mobilise her reservists on the 1st August. The German fighting machine had already begun to move. On the 2nd August, she over-ran Luxemburg. The Kaiser had asked the Belgian King for permission to send his troops through Belgium into France. The king refused. Ignoring this Royal refusal, German troops crossed the frontier into Belgium on the 4th August, and on the same day Great Britain, who had guaranteed Belgium neutrality, declared war on Germany. The general expectation on both sides was the war would be over by Christmas. There were, however, to be very nearly five Christmas Days before these Christian nations were to end their mutual slaughter.
The Germans, fearful of having to fight a war on both her Eastern and Western fronts had planned to deliver a massive right hook through Belgium into the heart of France to Paris, and knock France out of the war before Russia could mobilise her forces. The way would then be clear for Germany to turn her full attention to the Eastern Front with Russia. The French also had a plan, just the one that Germany had hoped they would make. It involved a predictable advance into Alsace and Lorraine, where the Germans intended to hold the French while they encircled them from the North.
The British Expeditionary Force had landed and concentrated in France by the 13th August. It numbered a mere 100,000 men, a fraction of the 1.5 million troops launched into France by the Germans, and the 2 million French soldiers who the British fought alongside. British troops numbered less than the 117,000 troops in the Belgian army.
At the time the British, alone among the great European powers had no conscripted armies. Although she had the most powerful navy in the world, her regular army numbered less than 250,000 men plus about 480,000 reservists and territorials. As the war developed, she had to undertake the Herculean task of expanding the army, the weapons and supplies to meet the vast military commitment of the Great War.